SEATTLE — It's the opening day of Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle and a 7,000-seat auditorium is filled to capacity. Dozens of people are lined up behind the two microphones with important questions for two geeks holding court on stage:
"If you were super-villains, what would your powers be?"
"I was wondering what your guys' plans are for the post-apocalyptic world?"
"I just wanted to say that you guys are my celebrities. I wouldn't be nearly as nervous to meet someone I've seen on the screen as I am to meet you."
Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, two best friends in their 30s who create an opinionated online comic strip about video games, couldn't look less like celebrities. Holkins is short, bald and pudgy, while Krahulik is tall and wire thin. Both are dressed in noticeably untrendy glasses, black short-sleeve shirts, jeans and sneakers as they patiently answer every question throw their way for almost two hours.
In fact, the duo are cartoonists, commentators and convention hosts, the forces behind a brand called Penny Arcade that draws 3.5 million visitors a month on the Web, more than 60,000 people to an annual convention and the devotion of advertisers eager to reach an elusive audience. Their business manager describes the venture as a "micro-media conglomerate."
It might not stay "micro" forever, though, as the growing popularity of gaming is expanding Penny Arcade's audience and its business opportunities. Growth plans include a second yearly convention and a TV series, but that creates tension about not only how much Penny Arcade can do, but whether it needs to compromise any of its appeal to a fiercely devoted core audience in the process.
It's quite possible you've never heard of Penny Arcade. That's because in an age when mass media are being replaced by niche, it's the perfect example of content that speaks to a specific crowd, like Outdoor Channel for hunting aficionados or the Huffington Post for political liberals. If you wonder what the gamer in your life who doesn't seem to watch TV or read magazines does with his or her time when not holding an Xbox controller, check out penny-arcade.com.
Holkins and Krahulik have spent more than a decade on the thrice-weekly strips, in which their animated alter egos Gabe and Tycho poke fun at trends, news and personalities in the world of gaming. There are numerous other online comics, video series and blogs that mock the same targets, but Penny Arcade's consistent track record and comedic chops have earned it a special place in the hearts of hard-core gamers.
"The role of Penny Arcade is clear: They're the voice of gamer culture," says Ken Levine, a Boston-based designer of the hit video game Bioshock who gave a speech at PAX last year. "They express the subtext of who we are in an incredibly sophisticated and ironic manner."
If Holkins and Krahulik are gods to their fans, then Penny Arcade Expo, generally called PAX, is their church. Started in 2004 as a spinoff of the strip, the annual event is now almost half the size of the much better known Comic-Con International, which many PAX attendees have come to regard with disdain as a barely disguised marketing tool for Hollywood.
"Comic-Con is an abattoir," says Holkins.
"There are 'Twilight' fans at Comic-Con now!" exclaims Krahulik. "There's nothing wrong with them, but they're a whole other group from us."
Video games once seemed like the last refuge of the uncool, but even they have gone mainstream. Grandma owns a Wii now and fraternity houses are throwing Rock Band parties. "A lot of the guys who buy my games today are the ones who gave me wedgies in high school," observes Levine.
Penny Arcade is for those who grew up on the receiving end of wedgies. Nerds may be cool all of a sudden, but that doesn't mean they want to read what the cool people read and hang out with them. They want their own media, their own parties. And that's what Holkins and Krahulik provide.
"I love these guys because they're real geeks who have flourished by being geeks," gushes 17-year-old Will Hellworth, who traveled from Santa Monica to attend PAX earlier this month. "They're our people."
Listen to Holkins and Krahulik talk and the topics of conversation are pretty similar to the ones you'd hear at the local GameStop on a Friday afternoon: the newly redesigned PlayStation 3 ("A gravestone for a once powerful brand," proclaims Holkins), for instance, and the new Batman game Arkham Asylum ("Everybody has to play this!" says Krahulik).
Holkins is louder and more aggressive, while Krahulik often stands back from group conversations. But they have much more in common. Friends since high school, the two work together in the same office in Seattle and often finish each others' sentences. "We do share a brain," admits Krahulik.
Nowadays, both are family men. Krahulik has a 5-year-old son while Holkins welcomed his second child, a daughter, just days after PAX finished.