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Interview with Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade

Brad Gallaway's picture

Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade (left) and Brad Gallaway (right) 

After attending the 2007 Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) in Seattle, Washington, GameCritics.com had the opportunity to speak with one half of the creative genius behind the online phenomenon, Penny Arcade. Part comic strip and part commentary, the work of writer Jerry Holkins and artist Mike Krahulik is entirely relevant to the gaming scene today.

This interview took place in Seattle during the month of September, 2007. Special thanks to community members Boy and Chaos Wielder for their contributions.

Thanks very much for speaking with us, Jerry. To start off, Little Sisters: saving or harvesting?

You know, I guess it isn't so much of a spoiler now because every right-thinking person has played the game to completion, but I harvested up until the twist. It was at that point that I... well, the game is really designed to make you think about why you do the things you do. I don't just mean in general terms like, you know, that omnipresent moral choice. The story itself is set up to communicate that idea, and I didn't really get it until that point. And when I actually understood what was going on, I couldn't do it anymore. Of course, by that point I was already bulked-up with all my ill-gotten ADAM, so it was a late conversion but I became a good man after that.

While we're on the subject, I've seen a lot of people's opinions cool on BioShock recently. It started off getting a lot of tens and people were saying it was the greatest ever, but  now that you've had a few days to step away from it, do you think the presentation and story on their own made the game a superior product?

I hate numbers. And not just as they relate to scoring videogames, but numbers in general are my enemy. But specifically, that 10 simply means that that person had a flawless experience, and it's not really measuring a physical object. We're not measuring a table or something, so it's OK if that number doesn't represent something in its totality, because it can't and I guess I don't expect it to any more. So what that 10 means is that when they got done playing it, they were like "Fuck, yeah... this was exactly what I wanted." The game is absolutely not perfect, but it's extremely ambitious on many axes, and it's very interesting, almost throughout.

[laughter]

You know, I didn't like the end of System Shock, either. It's tough. I have the same problem now. It's impossible, very very difficult to end, you know, if you don't have absolute linear narrative control. You don't really get to choose how or when to end things, especially in a game like that where you have all these choice nodes throughout. It's not perfect, but it's very good and very ambitious. They tried and succeeded for the most part. With a project that complex, that's probably worth a 10.

About the recent PAX, it was great and the vibe was definitely about being part of the scene. It wasn't nearly as corporate or "on display" as...

We're trying to promote and create, or reinforce maybe, the idea that we have a scene.  That we actually have our own context and culture that is worthy of celebration. I guess that's the idea behind PAX. I have to say, we were not prepared to find out that we were right. We didn't expect it to work as well as it did and feel as well as it did. We believed that we had a shared culture but, you know, you read fractious forums and try to track the community online, and most of it are like these flashpoints of conflict and controversies and stuff like that, but there really is a core there of shared culture and I am humbled to have provided a context for it.

Following up, it was really big this year.  You guys topped 30 or 40,000 from what I understand.

37.5

Ok, 37.5...and it's only going to get bigger in the coming years.  Do think with this growing size you're going to be able to maintain this kind of "our culture" feel, and this same atmosphere?

Someone asked me that... they wanted to know how we were going to keep it from becoming a corporate onslaught like E3. And I answered it probably as well as I can. I think that if we continue to make the people who attend it our focus and not simply make it a pit for consumers to fall in where money interests can poke and prod them for three days, I think we can retain it. I think if it continues to be an event that focuses on culture and that celebration of culture and then we bring those companies in to essentially entertain people, I think we can make it persist.

At PAX, you had both Wil Wheaton and Uwe Boll, I'm not sure I'm pronouncing his name right... You... Youwie.

I think it's You-vuh

You-vuh Boll, tell me, how did you pick those people?  What was the logic in getting them both to speak?

Um, it was Robert's idea to get Wil.  And I think it was a stroke of genius because his keynote cemented exactly... and we put up the podcast, and it's on the board, perfectly crisp. If you haven't downloaded it... get a copy of it. Just to have. It really turned out good. And, I mean, philosophically, the choices to have both him and Uwe Boll were really from the same place. And at a high-level, the idea of PAX is to create a corporeal Internet, right?  So, these people that you might never meet, that you're playing with online country-wide, these blogs that you read, you know, these reviled internet villains... physically present, you know; I think that there's a value to it. Everyone loves to bag on Uwe Boll, but he stood in front of those people and took it. I mean, he confronted that head on and that's interesting to me. I like providing a context where things were happening and in flux, in real time. It's just interesting.

What did you think of the crowd's reaction when he was there?

Well, I mean, it was almost exactly what I expected. Much the same as if they were watching one of his films, let's say. If half of the people leave, it's no doubt disheartening for him, but he knew what he was getting into. He did. He's lucky he escaped with his life.

[laughter]

But that's the reality, you know. You have to understand that people are used to being able to post what they want to in a thread, so they act in a genuine way to the things that are happening. It all goes back to that philosophy. So, they are responding to him by leaving. They are making a statement. "I am leaving."  And that's great.

This is a little off the subject, but I saw more men in kilts then I'd ever seen in my life, although I've never been to Scotland. Was there any particular reason? Do you or Mike partake yourselves?

No. No. These are like, the utilikilts? They seem very convenient, but the extent of my opinion on the kilt issue is that I certainly don't own one. No. No, no.

You guys were in Wired magazine recently...

Someone did a piece about us. But at any rate...

Fair enough, a piece about you. In the piece, there was mention of your earlier days where you had struggled and you talked about that a little bit, and I think in general a lot of people perceive you guys as having the Midas touch. It may not be true, but you are definitely a well-known success story. In that piece, I know you mentioned that Robert (Khoo) was a really big influence in that. Can you tell us a little bit more about your earlier days, and if Robert hadn't come along where do you think you would have ended up?

Well, if Robert hadn't come along...well, the site was solvent for months and months. I mean, we were getting the rent paid, but we wouldn't have done PAX. Child's Play would have happened, but we certainly can't plan on that scale. We determine the tone and the culture of PAX, but we couldn't possibly plan it. We don't have that kind of mind. The management of resources in real time is actually fun for Robert. I mean, to him, the numbers portion of any system is a game and trying to manage this amount of space and this amount of people and this number of exhibitors, he actually finds things like that extremely enjoyable, whereas we're both just totally intimidated by that sort of thing.

Along the same lines, did you guys imagine that you were destined for the big time, or that you'd reach this level of success?

We constantly expected to fail. I'm just as startled as anyone else that we've managed to... PAX especially. That's a really big idea to have been able to pull off and I'm not saying that to congratulate myself, I'm saying that in the spirit of absolute bewilderment. I don't know what we were thinking, but the desire was there. We had an inkling that there was a culture to tap into, and it was right. It was correct.

How do your friends and family react to where you're at right now, and do you notice that your fame on the Internet is reaching into your real-life? Do people at EB come up for your autograph or anything like that?

Well no, no one ever approaches me for an autograph outside of PAX. It's very rare that a reader will come up to me and ask me for an autograph.

But do you ever get recognized?

Well yeah, in an EB that does happen. Um, sometimes. Rarely. But it happens. Sometimes. But we have a very particular kind of fame. A very specific, very focused kind of fame that's not really comparable to what most people think of as famous. I mean, my friends don't give a shit; my son, he certainly doesn't care. And at work where people know me personally, they don't give a shit. So by and large, I think my family mostly thinks it's funny and I think they're just happy that I found something to occupy me.

Something to keep you off the streets?

Essentially. I mean, we're not really cut out for anything else.

One of the readers wanted to know if you feel that with all your success you're ever in danger of losing touch with the "common gamer," if there is such a thing?

Well, it's entirely possible; I don't think about people in those terms. I don't think there is this big monolithic group of "common gamers" that I will alienate if I continue to succeed. My success is a direct result of their readership and I guess it's entirely possible that they could start to dislike me, but that's a really circuitous scenario and I'm not entirely prepared to consider it, you know, 1 1/2 beers into this conversation.

[Laughter]

But at the same time, I suppose it's possible. The only thing that we can do is try to communicate in as genuine a fashion as we can. We're certainly not the only gaming strip out there. It's highly possible they'll find something out there they feel is more genuine or more "authentic," but you know, that isn't something I can really think about without going crazy. I can't consider things like that.

Given that you're such a visible site and you're obviously very opinionated, have you ever been approached by a developer to have your brain picked about what gamers like? You know, kind of like a consulting role?

No, we've never done that. No. But, that would be fantastic. That could bring in all sorts of fabulous revenue. I'm going to talk to Robert about that.

Getting back to the strip, has there been a time when you felt that you crossed the line somewhere, or took something too far? Has there been any really heavy fallout or backlash either from readers or developers?

No, because the process for writing it... it isn't like a switch is thrown and the script is created and then the comic is created in a moment, and then we just upload it immediately. There's a whole writing process, and we discard many, many ideas that we consider to "cross the line," whatever line that may be.  Typically, it's a line of good taste which I realize is difficult to believe, but we do have standards, of some kind. In fact, if you listen to the podcast , you can hear all sorts of ideas that we discard.

Has there ever been any particular strip that you thought was fine, but the readers hated?

Well, there are going to be readers that hate every strip. I mean, that's why we are lucky to have a system in place where we have three opportunities to enrage a person each week. Hopefully, one of those will not be absolutely revolting. But yeah, I mean it's pretty rare that a strip is a 100% success with the entire readership. People like Penny Arcade for different reasons and different strips embody those reasons in different ways.

So, do you get a pretty steady stream of hate mail?

Oh yeah, every strip generates hate mail. It took us many years to realize that that is a natural law.

You've been quoted several times as saying that your strips are based on what was going on in gaming at the time, but do you ever get ideas from your readers, or is there any sort of creative relationship at all between the reader base and you?

We read the same news bits that everyone else reads. You know, we lurk on many forum communities and we keep track of tons of feeds, read all the blogs, read all the mainstream sites and we cull some idea out of that, or out of our personal lives or experience with a game.

Talking about games more specifically... personal favorite games of all time, Go.

I've been playing games for 27 years. 

It's okay, I brought a spare cassette tape and I have backup batteries. We're good.

[Long pause]

I loved Mars Saga on the Commodore 64. It was released under another name later, but it had one of my favorite combat systems, ever.  It was a phased turn-based system. I haven't seen anybody do anything like it in a long time. It was turn-based, but it had the chaos of a pitched melee, sort of based on where you think they were going to go. It was exquisite.

That sounds a little bit like Vandal Hearts 2, on the PlayStation.  Have you tried that?

I'm familiar with the name, but I'm not sure about the period it's from. It isn't until the last few years that I've really been serious as a console gamer.  I was always PC before that, so I've missed a lot of RPGs, or JRPGs, I guess I should say. RPG-wise, I always loved the SSI D&D games, those are my all-time favorites. I had a lot of fun with the gold box series, and their DragonLance games as well, those were great. And of course, their successors, the BioWare titles; all the Black Isle stuff was just out of this world. And Planescape was just heartbreaking; just a staggering game.

As far as more current stuff, I'm playing Enternal Sonata right now, Persona 3 is still working for me, but I guess I have RPGs on the brain right now because I've been playing a lot of action games and I'm really ready to move on to something a little more cerebral. You know, you go through phases.

Another reader question; if you could replace Spacewar as the first videogame with another title and have that new game be the one to change the course of how games grew, developed and affected us, is there a particular title that you could pick and say "this is where I would like it to all have started"?

See, Spacewar is there, but I love those text adventures.

Like Zork?

Adventure would be the one I would say first. But yeah, there's no question I would put a piece of interactive fiction at the head end. Like Infocom interactive fiction.

So what do you guys think about the Wii; the games, the Wiimote and the shift towards motion technology?

Well, I just got done with Metroid Prime: Corruption like a week and a half ago, and I loved it. I was hooked. From beginning to end, it was exquisite.

Were you a fan of Primes one and two before that?

I loved Prime, and Metroid in general. But I thought this was a great match because they really proved the system for first-person shooters, it was so enjoyable. I think there's a lot of meat on those bones, and I was surprised to hear they're making another Red Steel. Hopefully, they'll take a lesson. It's not impossible to make a first-person shooter on the system, that's proven. As long as these lessons are internalized, I can really see some interesting things happening.

Apart from first-person shooters, what do you think? I haven't played Corruption yet personally, but most of the things I have played on the Wii I feel are either gimmicks or things that could have been done better on a regular control pad. There are a few games that seem to partially prove the system, but motion control in general... do you feel like it's a real step forward, or kind of a dead end?

Well, I think it's an interesting idea. It's just like the DS. I'm not ready to write it off even if there have been high-profile failures, and part of that is because I was quick to write off the DS before it was released. I mean, it seemed pretty ridiculous and a lot of the launch products and a lot of the products in general were just nasty, and they felt tacked on—just like a lot of these Wii titles have it tacked on, right? That makes it hard, but for me, it doesn't obscure the idea that it's another tool. The right developer with the right mindset could execute something that is original and completely impossible on another platform.  I'm not prepared to write it off, even if there's been some nasty stuff. However, if you had played Super Mario Galaxy, this question would not even be on your list.  I played it two years ago, before the Wii was out, and it sold me on the system. I bought the system, day one, because I knew Galaxy would be on there at some point.

With current trends and all the talk about casual gaming, do you think the shift towards opening things up to the mainstream is a good thing?

It isn't anything the hardcore really has to worry about. I mean, the Wii is definitely investigating that and Xbox Live and PSN are venues for more casual content, but the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 are both very very heavily skewed towards hardcore gamers. We're never going to reach this dark universe where hardcore gamers are haunted... you know, I'm not really worried about that.

Talking about Rain-Slick, (On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, the upcoming Penny Arcade videogame) how is it coming, and with your reputation as being very straightforward when it comes to other games, are you apprehensive about how it's going to be received?

I think every person who makes games is going to be apprehensive about how their product is going to be received....

That's true, but even more so for you because you guys are known for your commentary.

The reality is, when the opportunity presented itself... I mean, we did a tremendous amount of work... soul-grinding work, but we didn't do anything that any other gamer wouldn't have leapt at. I think that most people will recognize that. And, if it's an opportunity for our enemies to delight in our failure, then certainly I'm glad to provide them that entertainment if I can't provide it anywhere else.

So what can you tell me about it?

A lot. It's basically an adventure game with a light, old-school RPG combat system wrapped around it.  That's basically it. There will be some dialogue trees, and a steampunk prohibition-era 20s fantasy theme with an H.P. Lovecraft dark universe type of thing, but it's still fundamentally a humorous game. So, it's an interesting combination of ideas and I think people should expect us to be just as direct about this game's failures as we are about any other game. And honestly, we are going into the belly of the god-damned beast here, and we are going to come out of this with a much greater understanding of what it means to be a critic in this industry.  I think we will have the richest understanding of any critic who works in this field.

Speaking of critics, I assume you're up on the Roger Ebert issue that emerged a while ago. Any thoughts on games as art? Is he full of shit? Is he on the right track?

He just doesn't know any better, and that's not his fault. You know, videogames aren't his specialty. I'm not exactly sure what his specialty is, but...

[laughter]

Um, it's not his fault. A lot of people his age, they don't know what they're talking about. They might be senile, and this is just one topic about which they don't know. And the reality is, it may be that videogames as a medium haven't reached that ethereal plane he associates with the true artistic experience. My problem isn't so much his complaint about whether or not games are art or can be art; my problem is the idea that games can never be art, which is something I just sort of find disgusting. I find that idea very, sort of... what is exactly the right word to describe the sensation I'm feeling right now?

Personally, I thought that his comments were the ultimate in narrow- mindedness, and showed a gross lack of vision.

It's certainly myopic, but it seems sort of fundamentally anti-art to me. As soon as you start setting up those posts, and manning them, and guarding them, and you start saying that everything "in here" is art, we've got it all "in here"... that is just a fundamentally ridiculous idea. And as technology advances... I mean certainly, you can't make music with turntables, or whatever, and I'm just fuckin' sick of it. We're surrounded by art. Every time a person expresses themselves, you are immediately experiencing art, and you know... [pause]

 ...we just need to move on.

Okay, I got you. Moving on.

It just enrages me.

Another question from one of the readers: gamers seem to be split into different camps. You have your IGN people, you have your GameFAQs obsessive-compulsives, you have the intellectual people who look for ludic elements in everything, and there doesn't seem to be very much common ground between them at times. Maybe people from the outside see gamers as one amalgamated lump, but we don't see ourselves as being one big "tribe" except on the most basic level. So with not very many places for gamers to go and have common ground, your site was mentioned as one of the common factors crossing these different demographic groups...

Well I would say, PAX is the place that that could happen. And, I'm not trying to sell the show. We're not having another one for a long time, so this would be really poor marketing if that was the case. But, I think if we all had the opportunity to get into a shared context and have an opportunity to recognize some of those shared elements in a way that's intuitive when people get together, people wouldn't wonder about it. There are a lot of shared elements. I haven't put a lot of thought into breaking it down culturally, but the people you suggested all play games for different reasons... but they're all playing games. They're all connected to that same medium. They might be deriving different nutrients from it or looking at it from different perspectives, but it's all based around that medium and it's a fairly significant core, I think.

A follow-up to that, if you think that Penny Arcade or even PAX is that kind of gathering ground for people...

Or Child's Play. We couldn't raise a million dollars a year if it didn't appeal to a wide cross-section of people. Peer-to-peer charity.

Absolutely.  But looking at it, you had a series of excellent panels this year and with PAX and this cross-section of gamers coming together, have you given any thought to using that as a way of elevating the discussion about games?

Well, yeah.  We have 2½ days solid, booked, of panels and video presentations all devoted to that idea. There is no reason that we couldn't alter PAX to make it more social, or make it a social venue for different issues people might want to discuss there. I mean, PAX is in flux... we haven't planned a single minute of next year's three-day event yet.

Can you give us any ballpark ideas, anything you'd like to change or improve?

This year went pretty well, and really, I get exhausted just thinking about it. I mean, the core is bringing together these different kinds of gamers. The music. Oh, and the Omegathon. So, around that core, we build the rest of it.

Thank you very much for your time and patience, just one last question. Basically, do you does plan to do Penny Arcade for as long as you can do it, or do you have other goals, other things you'd like to do or things you'd like to move on to? Any plans for further on down the road?

No, I mean Penny Arcade is such an immediate... virtually everything about Penny Arcade is immediate. That type of planning is not, as I expressed before, something that Mike (Krahulik) and I are capable of. But we have inspirations that we seize on, and then we try to execute them with the help of someone who knows how to execute things. But, just as a general idea, like when we realize that everyone has consoles in their house that they're not using, we figured we should collect those consoles. And that was the start of Child's Play. But as soon as we contacted the hospitals they said "we don't want your old stuff" because they have immuno-suppressed kids, and they can't tolerate the shit we have in our closets. But that led to the entire Child's Play, going on four years now. We went to a convention that was all right, but it didn't really have the gaming component that would really have satisfied us. So we were like, can we do this ourselves? So, whenever something new happens at Penny Arcade, a lot of planning goes into the execution, but typically it's just a crazy inspiration that starts it. So, our new ideas are rarely the result of some big plan, it's probably just something that occurred to us at 11 and kept us up all night thinking about it. It's a pretty organic process, usually.

For more information on Jerry and his work on Penny Arcade, visit  www.penny-arcade.com. To learn more about Child's Play and how you can give sick children the gift of videogames, please visit  www.childsplaycharity.org.  To get the scoop on next year's PAX, go to  www.pennyarcadeexpo.com, and finally, for the latest information on their upcoming videogame, check out  www.rainslick.com.

Many thanks again to Jerry Holkins and Penny Arcade for taking the time.

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Cool stuff man - you and

Cool stuff man - you and Tycho are a couple of my favorite gaming writers on the web. Great interview.

You lost me. The first

You lost me. The first question was completely meaningless. I had to wade through a heap of text in the second before I realised it was about Bioshock, a game I have not played and do not care about which was related to the first question which, at this point, I cared about even less.

By the time I got to the rambling third question with its talk of PAX, whatever that is, I realised in the five or so years this site has been around, the journalism is still done so poorly. No one is professionally trained here but you haven't learned much and it just isn't good enough I'm sorry.

Fantastic job.

A thoroughly terrific interview. I think you asked every question I would have asked if I were sitting at a table with him myself. Incredibly well done.

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