Rethinking Penny Arcade

For as long as I have been following webcomics, I have been perplexed by the wild popularity of Penny Arcade. In my original review I reached the conclusion that it was the blog posts on the front of the site, of which the comic was a mere illustration, that were the real source of the comic’s popularity, and very little I’ve seen since has dissuaded me from that.

Last Friday, Jerry “Tycho” Holkins announced that Penny Arcade would be scaling back considerably; gone would be the Penny Arcade Report or third-party videos on PATV. The implication of the blog post seemed to be that if it weren’t for how huge Child’s Play or PAX had become, they’d be abandoning those things too.

This is a surprising about-face on a number of levels. For one thing, I don’t think the PAR really had a chance to reach the same levels of indispensability as Child’s Play or PAX, only going on for a year and a half. For another, just last year PA held a Kickstarter to remove ads from its web site that, regardless of its original intentions, ended up growing their brand even further, through the creation of the Strip Search web-reality show (though in retrospect that Kickstarter could be seen as a warning shot that something like this could be coming down the pike). It’s tempting to read this as a response to numerous controversies that PA had gotten into recently, especially a job posting that seemed to encourage applicants to lower their salary expectations – a pure cost-cutting effort, in other words.

Still, when I read this, I wanted to be a fly on the wall when Gabe and Tycho told their sugar daddy Robert Khoo about their decision. Khoo once told Gary “Fleen” Tyrell that PA was “a content-creating company focused on the videogame industry, with the webcomic just one part of it. Granted, the comic is the dominant part, but he didn’t commit to that always being true.” Gabe and Tycho now seem to have gone the opposite direction: they have effectively made clear that they don’t want to be a general “content-creating company focused on the video game industry”.

To be sure, it’s not like Khoo forced everything they’ve done over the past 15 years on them; Gabe introduced the PAR as “what we want to see from games journalism”, and both Child’s Play and PAX occurred as a result of Gabe and Tycho thinking about various issues. At no point did they do anything solely because Khoo told them it was the next step they needed to take on their march to global domination. Rather, it seems that Gabe and Tycho have come to the same realization I’ve tried to follow: that just because you feel someone should do something doesn’t mean you’re the ones to do it.

You might think the lesson here is a variation on an old theme: not to do something just because “that’s what you do” or “that’s what you need to do to grow your business” or your “brand”, but because you actually want to do it. And maybe it is. But if I was right about PA – if, as I put it when the PAR launched, “the larger empire that PA has grown into is not a symptom of its success; rather, it literally is its success” – I can’t help but wonder if Gabe and Tycho may have just made the decision to take down all that made them popular in the first place. By keeping Child’s Play and PAX they may only be turning back the clock to five to eight years ago, still a stage when they were the envy of the webcomics community, but they may still prove to be a cautionary tale, a sign that sometimes, those people telling you to “grow your brand” may have a point, because without them you may not have a brand.

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