PAX 2008: Gabe and Tycho speak
[UPDATE] Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins take a break from lording over the Penny Arcade empire to talk about their fifth annual gamer convention; full video interview inside.
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SEATTLE--The fifth annual Penny Arcade Expo is taking over the Washington State Convention & Trade Center this weekend, and the building is already crowded with gamers eager for things to get underway. There's an abundance of activities to be eager for, whether the attendees are looking to try out upcoming games, attend panels highlighted by a keynote speech from 2K Boston's Ken Levine, indulge in tabletop gaming and collectible card games, witness the grueling gaming tournament known as the Omegathon, or check out performances by some of the nerdiest acts in music like Freezepop or Jonathan Coulton.
But before things got out of hand, GameSpot caught up with Mike "Gabe" Krahulik and Jerry "Tycho" Holkins, respectively the artist and writer behind the Penny Arcade webcomic, the Child's Play gamer-charity drive, and PAX. With a projected throng of 45,000 attendees set to descend on the convention center, the pair talked about their vision for the show, guiding its growth to maintain an intimate vibe, and starting up an East Coast event.
GameSpot: So what are you up to with this year's PAX?
Mike Krahulik: It's biiiiiiiig.
Jerry Holkins: Plump. Pleasantly plump.
GS: This is the fifth show for you, and it gets bigger every year. Do you have preshow freakouts every year, or is it old hat by now?
JH: I'm freaking out right now. I'm so glad you're doing this interview because the alternative is to wander around the show like a lost kitten, which is typically what we do.
MK: We're like the hosts. And the host having a party always wants to make sure everyone has a good time.
JH: What happens is you go around and adjust the pictures...
GS: It's been evolving from something really small, right, so tell us a bit about your thinking in growing it.
JH: Well, this year in the main theater, we do have a stone ziggurat. I'll be performing a ritual at the apex of the show that will claim 40,000--
MK: We're lucky that the vibe at PAX scales really well. As we expand the show, we try to keep that feeling at PAX that isn't at a lot of trade shows. So that's definitely a concern to maintain that, but so far we've had a lot of luck with it. And it's little things like not allowing two-story, three-story booths with restaurants at the top. It's definitely something we're trying to avoid and walking that fine line.
GS: Are you nervous about expanding it to another coast?
JH: We're professionally nervous about everything.
MK: Yes. We're always nervous. Every day we wake up nervous. I take medication now.
GS: As far as cultivating and growing this, why is it working? It's very organic.
MK: I don't know if you saw but I was poking fun of E for All on our site a few days ago. They had some wallpaper they were releasing of a shark eating their logo. I guess it was supposed to be extreme.
JH: It's supposed to be extreme but that's just stupid...
MK: It's not even that we're so awesome; it's that everyone else is an idiot. They don't get it. It's not hard. If you play games and you love games, it's not hard to do this. But when you look at something like that, you just think, "How can I take any pride in winning?" They're just stupid. They don't know what they're doing.
GS: Do you have any ambition to make this an event where companies come to unveil the next big thing?
MK: If someone wants to do that, we would not turn them away.
JH: For them, I think they would prefer a more press-focused show to do that stuff to make sure the message gets out. It may not be a great match for that kind of announcement.
GS: This is a unique show in the US because it's a primordial soup of gaming with tabletop gaming and such.
MK: This is what we like. We'd been to a lot of conventions where they'd have a couple consoles in a room or some tabletop stuff set up...
JH: A ghetto, essentially.
MK: ...and we thought there should be a convention for all the stuff that we like.
JH: We went to shows, took the 10 percent of their shows that we liked, and made an entire show out of that 10 percent. And it's a show people want to go to, it turns out.
GS: You guys have sort of become spokespeople for our specific generation, the adults who play games. Do you think about what you want to put out there for games? Because we don't have that many spokespeople.
JH: I've heard what you said before, but I don't know if it's true. I'm not ready to believe that it's true, that this is what I'm doing. We don't take it for granted. We don't take the success of PAX for granted, and we try to earn it every time we put something out. And I think that's the only policy we can have, to put something out that's worth your time.
MK: I forget which book it was, but [Jerry] wrote in the intro that every good thing that has happened to us has been because of our readers. That's all we can do. Everything that's here is because of the people that are walking around out there.
GS: This is also a unique PAX because you guys are now bona fide game developers. Got any reflections on being a developer?
JH: Well, we haven't been doing it very long, and I'm sure most of the deep thoughts this process has revealed would be absolutely trite to people who are in the trenches for years and years making a single game.
For us what the process did is to [change our perspective]. I like to say bad words in my news post, but now in general I'm trying to offer something constructive. For a long time I was satisfied purely with the profanity element, but I think there's an opportunity to say something that is useful.
MK: We've essentially made a career out of tearing games apart. Now I think more about providing constructive criticism of a game. The tearing apart is still funny for the three panels...
JH: But it's part of a conversation essentially.
GS: How do you maintain being creative? At a certain point you could do what you did because you weren't part of a machine; you were outsiders. But you're part of the whole tapestry of the industry now. Do you feel like you can still hang on to your voice?
MK: I think the main thing is we don't care if we lose it.
JH: Until you asked the question I didn't know we were on the threshold.
MK: Well are you afraid that people are all of a sudden going to not like Penny Arcade because of something we say or do?
JH: No. I think people know who we are by now. And if we need to take the strip over for two weeks to do a comic about ping pong against, Russia, then we will.
MK: And honestly, if it ends, we had a hell of a run. Ten years, we did our best.
GS: But you do still feel like you have your fingers on the pulse of the people. PAX helps keep you grounded, right?
MK: I don't know what you imagine our lives to be like [laughs]. We don't live in a mansion and have 20 cars. We work in a little office.
JH: We have three perfectly nice cars...
MK: Each. In this city.
JH: There are parts of that thesis that I'm not comfortable with. Maybe that's it, once you start to think you're the spokesman for these people, that's when you lose it. But I'm still trying to earn it. I still feel like a f***ing failure half the time.
MK: Well you are. I try to reinforce it whenever I can. You gotta keep him hungry.
JH: I'm starving.
MK: No, we like to play games and make comics. That's all we wanted to do.
GS: One of the great things about PAX is that kids can come, and I'm wondering what your thoughts are on that as a father.
MK: I'd like to expand the kids' section of the show eventually. As someone who has a 4-year-old now, there are a lot of games we play together. I think it'd be fun to have a room of kids games, learning games and stuff like that. Gaming is a big part of my life with my son, but the games we play are very different from the rest. We play Putt-Putt and Curious George.
JH: We just play with the creature creator in Spore. That's the entire experience for him.
GS: Somewhere out there the next Mike and Jerry are watching--
MK: I hope not. I need a couple more years. I just bought a new house.
GS: What would you say to people who want to do what you do?
MK: Don't, don't. Let us do it.
JH: You see, this is why you can't maintain that man-of-the-people vibe... Just entertain yourself, that's the most important thing. You can keep that up for a long time, and you'll be surprised when you put that up on an international network of computers, how many people like you there are. We were certainly surprised to find out.
MK: If you set out trying to make something that isn't necessarily you, you can't maintain that. At least I can't maintain that.
GS: What's the best feedback you've received since the beginning of PAX?
MK: The best feedback is that people keep coming back and they bring friends. We make a point to walk the floor whenever possible just to be available, but when someone comes up and says, "I'm having a really good time," that's what all of this is for. A year of planning so that they will have a really good time.
For more from the convention, check out GameSpot's complete coverage of Penny Arcade Expo 2008.