PAX'S Co-Founder On The Game Industry's Best And Worst
At PAX West 2017, I talked with Penny Arcade legend and PAX co-founder Jerry Holkins aka Tycho Brahe about his favorite games, the phenomenon of PAX, his favorite developers, and the gaming landscape of the last decade. Chatting with Holkins was a blast, and I hope you enjoy it too – read on for some surprises!
GI: Let’s start off hot, what’s your favorite Penny Arcade strip of all time?
JH: There’s so many. So many strips like thousands of strips now and it’s like I can’t claim to like all of them equally. So which is the one I want to leave all my wealth to? There’s one from a very long time ago about the Earth having been taken over by a space-faring race of malevolent dogs called the Caynid (sp?) and I have a soft spot for that one. But there are so many I could name…The dark truth is that generally speaking I forget a strip as soon as we’ve done it, I’m always thinking about the next comic.
What’s your role in PAX today?
I’ve never had like project management planning type stuff, that’s not my specialty. What I like to do, and what I’m good at, is trying to figure out how something should feel. So generally speaking it’s my task to name things. Like day to day, my role hasn’t actually changed much over the years – there’s a dedicated team of PAX people that makes sure it goes off without a hitch and our incredible Enforcers.
So you have PAX South, PAX Australia, PAX Board Games, what’s next? Is the sky the limit for this show?
No I think that with the advent of the board game show, it’s a pretty dense roster there. I don’t wanna put any shows over near E3 Gamescom – we don’t want to be in that blast zone at all, and I think I’ve reached the limits of both my physical capabilities and the patience of my family.
Do you find yourself sort of self-censoring the strip as the years have gone by?
It’s possible. I’m a lot older now, I’ve been doing it for 20 years. When you start putting that out, that person has a set of experiences that informs all the work that they’re doing – at 41, my life is different. So the things that bother me and the things that I like and are interested in just have a different texture, and I think that it’s entirely possible that that texture is less characterized by piss and vinegar. My life is just different in a way that has altered the content of the strip.
What’s your favorite game of all time?
Shenmue for a long time was my all time favorite. I think there was just nothing like that then and I think in a lot of ways there still isn’t – there still aren’t games where you just open every drawer and see what shirts are in there. There’s just things about it that made it my favorite. Think about a classic adventure game where you have this sort of dream logic. The way you need to solve problems is just to sort of look around and observe your environment. I mean that’s true to an extent in other adventure games let’s say I need to go into the basement of my house and I need a flashlight but it doesn’t work – in an adventure game I’d have to look at all this s*** and then eventually find it or maybe take batteries out of something else but no, you go to the store. You go to the f****** store and you buy batteries. This to me, actually being able to solve things in a normal, rational way was such a revelation at the time.
As far as the game I like the most right now is a Switch game: Has-Been Heroes. It’s so weird. It’s so weird.
Wait, is that the side-scrolling roguelike RPG game?
Yes! It doesn’t map to any existing game structure. It can’t be explained in terms of another game. You have to commit and they don’t help you. You go into console space and there’s a certain expectation of kindness like welcoming you into the experience. I think that that’s an expectation. If you want to you can investigate it and find something really novel. I get really cranked up when people don’t agree on games and I get really cranked up on that. The iconography is all roguelike RPG s*** but underneath it’s actually a kind of block arrangement puzzle game, matching attacks and positions. The deeper you get into it the more generous it gets, you start unlocking items, characters, spells, anyway - it rewards a little bit of patience.
What’s the coolest thing that’s happened in gaming in the last 10 years?
Generally agreed upon things would be something like VR. But I don’t think it’s one of the coolest things that’s happened because it would have greater penetration. But there’s a lot of people that can’t play VR. Like biologically. I don’t have that problem but for me what I like about games at their best for me are sort of a medium of communication. So I think that it can’t be it. I would have to say mobile.
I think if you want to talk about the framework or the innovation that’s allowed more people to engage with the medium, we have to say it. These things all fold back over themselves. Like the Switch would not exist if mobile gaming hadn’t existed, and the Switch is my favorite console ever. Like bar none. I think it exists at that crossroads of the mass market and the true enthusiast, it represents a very very interesting point on that graph. It’s a Tegra-powered f****** tablet, that’s all it is, but because it has Nintendo’s backing and indies are flocking to it. It’s happening! Mobile expanded the definition of game in ways that true enthusiast gamers don’t like and almost certainly correlated with manifestations of free-to-play mechanics. There’s also a lot of really novel stuff, we’ve already seen those Korean-style MMOs – that stuff was mastered on PC and went mass market with mobile.
What’s the worst thing that’s happening in gaming in the last 10 years?
I wonder if it is some of the more crass monetization. Generally speaking it’s done in a way you can avoid. I generally do not purchase crates or keys for crates. I’ll be talking to developers and they’ll be working on a game for years and years and then they release it at 60 dollars and it’s a success or isn’t and destroys your entire company. So trying to create this ongoing tail of content extends the blast radius of the product. It can also be done in very interesting ways – have you been shocked to see the longevity of GTA Online? It’s happening as a result of this backend that’s allowing it to remain. I don’t think it can be considered just a bad thing. It can definitely warp it, but I don’t think it’s the worst. What is the worst thing? Hmmm.
We can come back to that one! Who’s your favorite developer (Company)?
Right now I do like Frozenbyte. They made Has-Been Heroes so I have to give them props for that. But let’s see. I think that Ubisoft gets a bad rep. I think that for a company that is executing games at the budgets they are, I think they take a lot of chances. And they’ve had issues with let’s say the networking, For Honor for instance, and some exploits, but playing it as a brawler/fighting game there’s some really novel playstyles there. And again it’s like what we were talking about with Has-Been Heroes, you can’t compare it to other games because it does a lot of things unique to it. They swing for the fences with this s*** you know? Racing RPGs. Weird f****** s***. They are willing to spend real money on this stuff and then give them chances. Like Rainbow Six Siege. We are going to look back and say this was one of the greatest shooters of all time. Period. You can play the same map so many different ways and they keep adding new twists on how to manipulate the environment. You have to give them props. These are big ideas and they didn’t leave it - they didn’t say hey that’s lost money. Because it was a rough ride.
On an individual level who’s your favorite developer?
Jake Solomon. He’s just a really genuine craftsman. I love reading articles about him talking to Sid. There’s a few developers that break the “you can’t go home”, like Miyamoto. When you play something like Super Mario Sunshine you can have your first Mario experience again. He (Solomon) was able to make an XCOM that felt like I remember XCOM feeling, but still novel so I could actually inhabit it.
I know we’re out of time but just to go back to it, any final thoughts on the worst thing in gaming in the last 10 years?
Online voice chat!