An E3 For Everybody: Penny Arcade Expo Doubles In Second Year

Gaming conference drawing big-name sponsors, large crowds.

They don't teach classes in how to earn a living making jokes about video games. But Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins have managed to do just that.

Krahulik and Holkins — better known as "Gabe" and "Tycho" to the 4-million-plus monthly readers of their online comic strip about video games, Penny Arcade (Penny-Arcade.com) — celebrated a landmark of sorts last weekend. Their second annual Penny Arcade Expo, a gaming festival held in Bellevue, Washington, more than doubled its previous year's attendance and drew an estimated 10,000 fans.

The Penny Arcade team, which operates from an office in Seattle, also was in the process of hiring its fifth full-time employee, a modest but significant expansion for an enterprise built on comic strips detailing the frustrations of voice-controlling a Nintendog or ways to save up for an Xbox 360.

The Penny Arcade Expo, or PAX, proved to be a triumphant moment for Krahulik and Holkins, who've built a career out of their love of games and organized PAX as a way to let regular gamers get a feel for the kinds of sneak peeks and panels usually reserved for industry insiders. The gaming industry's biggest annual showcase, the Electronics Entertainment Expo, isn't open to the public. But PAX, which will be followed by fan-oriented festivals from IGN and GameSpot later this year, brings the games to the people.

Nintendo, one of the main boosters for this year's PAX, made portions of its delayed new "Zelda" GameCube title available to the public for the first time. Other sponsors included Ubisoft, NC Soft, Turbine and Atari.

The expo was a celebration of what Holkins described as the "social pariah outcast aesthetic," a demographic he accepts as his own. The expo included two nights of concerts, featuring acts such as gaming music cover band the Minibosses, Optimus Rhyme and "nerdcore" rapper MC Frontalot, all music "specifically relevant to the geek experience," according to Holkins. "We have our own songs, but not everyone is aware of them."

Along with tournaments, movie screenings and panels about breaking into the industry, the expo featured the second annual Omegathon, which enlisted 20 randomly chosen attendees and whittled the field through a battery of challenges that included "Quake" battles and "Karaoke Revolution" sing-offs. The winner received a computer and a small mountain of every game and peripheral ever made for the old-school Nintendo Entertainment System.

Holkins, 29, said he and Krahulik, 28, were unlikely candidates for forming a gaming festival like PAX, describing themselves as "the laziest people in the universe."

The pair met in high school journalism class in the early '90s and bonded over their interest in video games. Krahulik was the console gamer, a proud owner of a Sega Genesis. Holkins was a PC guy. Krahulik was also an aspiring comic-book artist and had asked Holkins to join him as a writing partner. After high school, they both worked separate jobs involving computersKrahulik sold them, Holkins repaired them.

Bit by bit, the guys worked on developing comic books. They also played a lot of games, enough so that Holkins is the kind of person who remembers events from his past in relation to video-game release dates. He and Krahulik started rooming together, for instance, "right around when Quake 2 came out."

In the late '90s they responded to a call from a gaming magazine, Next Generation, to create short comic strips about games. Feeling they had found their voice (three panels was "better suited to our lack of attention span"), they submitted an avalanche of strips. They were rejected.

Undeterred, the pair decided to try their strip online, launching it in 1998 and eventually attracting an investor. They developed a readership of 1 million readers a month, only to lose their backing in 2000 as the dot-com bubble popped. By that time the guys had moved apart and gotten married, but the day they lost their support Holkins was also evicted.

They turned to their readers for donations, reaping, according to Holkins, $10,000 in one day. They started accepting advertising and eventually found a business manager, Robert Khoo, who righted their business for the long term.

In the last five years, readership for Penny Arcade has quadrupled and Krahulik and Holkins have seen their influence greatly increase. Game makers, chief among them Ubisoft, commission the duo to write strips to package with their games. Holkins said despite occasionally working with game developers, he and Krahulik are still outsiders.

"Our relationship with the game industry is what I consider strained," he said. "We don't always have nice things to say about their multimillion-dollar products." Holkins said he and Krahulik have found it easier being negative but clearly still harbor love for games. "It's harder to make jokes about something you like," he said.

Still, the Penny Arcade team is grateful for having found a way to make a living talking about games, something not all that different than what they did in high school. "Even I find this story inspiring," said Holkins. "I have a hard time realizing it is true."

The Penny Arcade Expo is expected to be held at a larger venue next year, and the team is considering adding an East Coast version of the event.