As the creative tandem behind popular online comic Penny Arcade, Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins have made a living by condensing often offbeat commentary on games and gamer culture into a handful of panels and word balloons every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Krahulik provides the art and the inspiration for the impulsive and manic Gabe, whereas Holkins writes the comic and allows sardonic alter-ego Tycho to serve as the somewhat warped straight man of the duo.
Along the way, Krahulik and Holkins have established a notoriously loyal fan base, a rapidly growing open-to-the-public game convention, and a multimillion-dollar charity benefiting children's hospitals. Earlier this year, Penny Arcade expanded yet again, this time into the world of game development. Teaming up with Hothead Games, the pair produced Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode 1 for the Xbox 360, PC, Mac, and Linux. (The game was also recently announced for a fall release on the PlayStation 3.)
Having had some time to reflect on the creation of the game and its critical reception, the pair spoke with GameSpot about negotiating the Precipice, working with other people, what worked in the game, and what didn't.
GameSpot: How did the deal with Hothead Games come about? Did they approach you or had you been looking for a partner to make a game with?
Mike Krahulik: They actually approached us with the idea of the game. We were friends with a few of them. The lead programmer's wife helps us run PAX and she runs Child's Play, so we sort of had an "in" with them. They took us out to lunch at Marie Callender's and pitched us the idea of a Penny Arcade game.
Jerry Holkins: We were absolutely not looking for someone to make a Penny Arcade game.
GS: What sold you on the idea of it?
MK: A big part of it was that we knew these guys. Hothead was a new company at the time, but they had come from a series of games that essentially involved them taking comics and making 3D games out of them, like The Simpsons and The Hulk. Those were well received, so we thought if ever there was an opportunity to do it, these were probably the guys to do it.
GS: What were you the most happy with about the game?
MK: The art. I think that in general the art design really, really shines. Not so much the writing, but the art is really stellar, knockout work.
JH: [Laughs.] I'm happy. I think it feels more or less like a Penny Arcade video game. I didn't know what that would mean when we started the process. I didn't know what it would feel like or the context that would create for the player, but I think we've done something that feels like Penny Arcade in game form.
GS: One of the interesting things about the game was that very little of it was tied to the comics. Some of the characters are there, but it's not rife with supporting characters and references from the comics; it's this entirely new gameworld. Can you explain that decision?
JH: For us, Penny Arcade is just personalities. When we're planning a comic together, it's mostly about how different personalities interpret playing a game together or other parts of pop culture. That's one of the things that distinguishes making Penny Arcade from reading it, I guess. That's all Penny Arcade is for us. We just put those personalities in another context and they were surprisingly resilient.
GS: Was it your natural first instinct to throw away the sort of "real world" setting of the comic and do something new?
JH: The comic is hardly real world. I don't think that would have been much fun to play. I don't know how much opportunity there was in that environment to tell a compelling story. And the fact of the matter is we really enjoy [doing something different]. Whenever we have the opportunity, we like taking those characters and doing things like the Cardboard Tube Samurai. We like taking them and putting them in different situations. The game seemed like a great opportunity to do that.
GS: What did you think could have been done better?
MK: We had a hard time with this first episode, sort of figuring out what the game needed to be, whether it was an action game or an adventure game or what it really was. We did not have enough classic adventure-type puzzles or puzzles in general in the game. And I think the minigames we put in there on the boardwalk fell flat. They didn't end up as cool as we hoped they'd be. For the next episode we definitely bump up the puzzles, and I think the minigame element will be better there, too.
GS: Given the name Penny Arcade Adventures and the presence of [Secret of Monkey Island creator] Ron Gilbert on the project, I really expected an old-school adventure game, but it wound up a lot more like a Japanese role-playing game.
JH: Yeah. But the things I really pull away from an adventure game in terms of the sorts of characters and the dialog you have...those are the things I really like about adventure games. So I tried to capture that specific part, but I think our adventure gameplay needs to be more traditional in some respects.
GS: How did the process with Hothead work? Did you give them the groundwork for the game and then they built from there? Did they give you a handful of different treatments to choose from?
JH: I think when we thought about Penny Arcade, an adventure game seemed like the best fit. They went that route with Strongbad as well. For a cartoon or comic thing, adventure games feel like a good match for those situations. But I really wanted to make something that was an RPG. I wanted to do something that was even more 16-bit, like Chrono Trigger with Penny Arcade characters. But the truth is 2D art is actually very expensive.
GS: As someone who makes your living based on the distinct style of your creative work, what was it like watching a team of people professionally copying it for mass consumption?
MK: Well, Jerry didn't have to deal with that too much. Everything he wrote ended up in the game as-is.
GS: There weren't people writing extra lines or anything else?
MK: No. The only other writing on there was when I got to write five lines. And I had to beg to do those. He wrote the game. But I really had the experience of watching professionals copy my work. I had the role of concept artist on this one, and I had to trust that the artists at Hothead would interpret it the way I wanted it. And for a long time, I was really scared. I don't know if you've watched a lot of games get developed, but for a long time they don't look like much of anything. It was sort of terrifying, but it was neat to watch at the end all the polish that gets done. The final product I think is very representative of the concept work I did.
GS: Did you learn anything about your art style from seeing the way other people interpret it?
MK: Yeah. The 3D worlds were one thing, but the Flash-animated cutscenes I thought had to be spot-on. They had to look like I drew them. And when the first samples of those came back, they really didn't look quite like Gabe and Tycho, and I wasn't sure why. I had to sit down and figure out what makes Gabe and Tycho look the way they do. I ended up creating these model sheets that had everything from the points on Tycho's hair to how far apart Gabe's eyes are. All the tiny things that make them look right, I'd never really thought of before.
GS: You guys are a brand unto yourselves now. Are those things going to be codified in some kind of character bible for other licensors to deal with?
MK: Honestly, I don't really consider the game a licensed product. I think Hothead expected that they would just hook up a deal with us, take the Penny Arcade name and make the game. I don't think they wanted us to draw and write it.
GS: Was that always welcomed?
MK: No, not at the beginning at all.
JH: I think we're very difficult people to work with. And having us so high in the food chain in the development of a product is probably a bad thing for them. It complicates the ordinary development process.
MK: Not only do we have very little business skill, we don't care very much about it. The decisions we made weren't taking the bottom line into account.
GS: Was there a time you didn't think it would come together to put an actual game out?
JH: Until the game was actually released, I think we had doubts. The process has definitely been challenging. It's been interesting and rewarding as well, but in general, I think I like just commenting without putting any skin in the game as far as the industry is concerned.
GS: You produced a comic before the game came out about longtime game reviewers you'd antagonized in the past looking forward for a chance at revenge by reviewing your game. How much pressure did you feel to keep the game from being just another bad licensed game or bait for bad reviews?
MK: I didn't feel any pressure from reviewers. The only pressure I ever feel is from myself and Jerry. I feel pressure every time we make a comic--every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday--to make it the best thing I can make. The game was no different. We've never really concerned ourselves with whatever reviewers are going to think about what we're doing.
GS: Well, I'm sure you read the reviews of the game, and were a bit more interested in it than the average message board thread for your comic strip.
JH: That's definitely true. It's not just us this time. We felt a little responsibility toward Hothead. They were sort of hitching their wagon to us...
MK: [laughs] Our JPEGs are very inexpensive to produce. If we do one that doesn't make people laugh, then wait another couple days and there will be another one. A lot of people worked extremely hard on this and we felt a responsibility to make it as good as we could.
GS: What'd you think of the critical reception it received in the end?
MK: I think it's pretty much exactly right. I pegged the game as an 8 personally, and I think our Metacritic score is about 7.8 or something like that. So I feel good about it.
GS: Were there any criticisms or kudos you hadn't expected to get?
JH: I think we pretty much looked at the product with our eyes open and saw things that luckily we have opportunities with each of these episodes to improve on. I think in general we basically agree with most people.
MK: If anything surprised me, it would have been the complaint that it was too short. I really didn't think that would be a complaint leveled against the game. I think it clocks in at five-and-a-half hours to maybe eight or nine on the high end. That seems like a good amount of time for a game.
JH: That's the industry average now for a $60 game.
MK: I guess the other side of that is they liked it enough to feel it was short. If they hadn't liked it, they would have been glad it was short, right?
GS: In the game's end credits, there were a good number of focus testers in there. What kind of feedback did you get from them and how did it shape the end product?
JH: People were having a much tougher time with blocking and counterattacking. It was to the point that in the last couple weeks of development, Hothead introduced a clue on the health bar to give you a hint about when to block optimally.
GS: The health bar wouldn't flash to show you when to block before?
JH: Exactly. It was a little more mysterious before, where you were trying to read the sound cues or the animation cues or something like that. We eventually decided that was just too mysterious.
MK: Yeah, if you read one of the first reviews we got, the Edge review that [said the game] was so lousy, they complained about there being no visual clue to block. By the time that came out we'd fixed it, but that's a problem with digital distribution. They were working on it days before it went up.
GS: The game has a narrator that disappears shortly into it. Is there more planned for him or was he just there for the initial exposition?
JH: He was just there to set the tone for the series and the game. But you'll definitely be hearing more from him. Trust me on that one.
GS: What's the biggest lesson you learned as you head into Episode 2?
MK: I don't know. There's a lot of stuff heading into Episode 2 that we're working on. Like Jerry said, the nature of episodic content means we can look at all the feedback we get and implement it.
GS: Are you feeling the downside of episodic content? Like maybe the design can't get too ambitious?
JH: As far as our ambitions for the game, we just wanted to entertain people and make them curious about the story. Our ambitions for the game in general weren't tremendously sophisticated.
MK: I think it does a great job of replicating my style, and the cutscenes look incredible. I don't feel limited artistically at all. I'm not holding myself back or anything like that.
GS: Thanks much.