Penny Arcade and the art of self-indulgence

I say good ladies and sirs, could you spare one a dollar or several thousand?

When I first started using the internet as a college student, circa 1997, the general consensus amongst “netizens” was “monetisation = bad!” Owners of shoddy HTML atrocities, plastered in low-res .jpegs of blue ribbons, shunned any site daring to sport filthy capitalist propaganda like a leper at a nudist beach. Here in capitalist money-year 2012 you can’t even read an obscure blog about rearing sheep on the Shetland Isles without spotting at least one Google ad. Large sites rely heavily on advertising revenue from page hits to keep them going, and YouTube partners can earn enough to live on with (mostly skippable) ads at the beginning of their videos. Ads have become a fact of internet life.

Mike “Gabe” Krahulik and Jerry “Tycho” Holkins of hugely popular and successful gaming webcomic Penny Arcade very much want it to be otherwise, and recently launched a Kickstarter to try and recapture a shred of those innocent, halcyon days of yore. If they reach their goal of $250,000 dollars they can afford to remove the big leaderboard ad at the top of the Penny Arcade homepage, and for $500,000 they’ll remove all the other ads from the front page too. For a cent shy of $1 million they can make all of Penny Arcade (excluding PAX and PATV) completely ad-free, a luxury currently only enjoyed by anyone who uses an adblocker. The theory is they’ll be able to free up the time spent on “creative services projects” (promotional comics and ads) for more personal strips, podcasts and other content.

Penny Arcade have come a long way from their days of subsisting on fan donations, earning enough through ads, “creative services projects” and merchandise to organise two gaming conventions a year: PAX East and PAX Prime respectively. It even says in the Kickstarter description that Penny Arcade will trundle on as usual if they don’t meet their goal. “Penny Arcade will be fine. We’ll keep going just like before with no interruption in service and nothing will change.” So it’s hardly surprising this projct has come in for criticism, ranging from “dumb” to at least one critic calling it “obscene”.

The response from hardcore Penny Arcade fans has been an almost unanimous “if you don’t like it then you don’t have to fund it”, and while they’re correct – to an extent – that doesn’t magically make Penny Arcade immune to criticism. People are free to spend their money how they like of course but this Kickstarter has the distinct whiff of self-indulgence about it. It’s like Penny Arcade suddenly had a premature mid-life crisis and began pining for “the good old days”, when they were “artistically pure” and didn’t have to kowtow to “The Man”. It all sounds very noble on paper but rings somewhat hollow next to all the ad revenue they’ve raked in over the years.

Another reason given by Penny Arcade for this Kickstarter is it will supposedly give them more free time to do the content they want, instead of stuff for publishers and other advertisers. Fans have rabidly parroted this in the mistaken belief that similar works of art take the same amount of time to produce, which any artist worth a damn will tell you is utter bollocks. On some days inspiration whispers a steady stream of sweet nothings into your ear and you produce a squillion masterpieces. Then she fucks off to Benidorm for a month leaving you staring at a blank screen or easel while sobbing t0 yourself. Work created out of love is not somehow “quicker” or “easier” than work for hire. Sometimes quite the opposite.

Speaking of which, work for hire doesn’t necessarily have less artistic merit than a work created for the hell of it. By that criteria nearly everything created by legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby would be rendered artistically null and void. Respected comic book writer Alan Moore’s Batman story “The Killing Joke” was done as work for hire, as is former games journalist Kieron Gillen’s recent work on Uncanny X Men. An artist doing work for hire can put as much of their love and personality into it as they would their own personal projects, possibly more if its to do with a license or IP they love like Gillen with X Men. Even Penny Arcade’s commercial work like their Dragon Age strips have that distinct and recognisable Penny Arcade charm and spirit.

Another argument from fans is this Kickstarter will change the entire way Penny Arcade do business. Krahulik has stated on Twitter that the model would take the form of a yearly pledge drive and made comparisons to NPR. Wouldn’t an ad-free premium subscriber option similar to sites like Giant Bomb achieve the same thing though? Penny Arcade are certainly big enough to utilise and sustain that sort of model, and it would meet their apparent emotional need to work directly for the fans through patronage. That doesn’t mean Penny Arcade would have to implement a paywall. Hypothetical premium subscribers to Penny Arcade could simply get new content before non-subscribers, which is less disingenuous than offering to retweet someone for $500.

And what if a pledge drive doesn’t succeed one year? Penny Arcade would presumably go back to the work for hire and site ads for that year, business as usual. What we cannot predict is how the fans will react. Most will simply shrug their shoulders and think “better luck next year” but some will take the pledge drive’s failure personally. To these fans Penny Arcade’s next promotional tie-in comic won’t be a cheery, fun little strip that helps them pay the bills. It’ll instead convey an unspoken message between the lines (or should I say in the gutter?) that says “Read this new promotional strip we had to do to pay our bills because you were all too chintzy to keep us going for a year.” That won’t be Mike and Jerry’s intent at all I’m sure, but some people will doubtless unfairly see it that way.

I’ve been a fan of Penny Arcade ever since I first discovered them about a decade ago and I still love their stuff, including the video they made to promote their Kickstarter which I found really funny. My financial support for Penny Arcade has been through viewing the ads on their site, since unlike a growing number of people these days I never use an ad blocker. Ever. Ads don’t really bother me at all unless they’re truly obnoxious. I might grumble about the tedious 5 second wait before I can skip a long ad on videos from Stuart Ashen or TotalBiscuit but I endure them because the content creator benefits. I don’t begrudge people making a living from something they love doing, and I certainly don’t believe people should be ashamed of success if they’ve earned it.

That doesn’t mean I’ll gleefully throw money at someone pining for an idealistic, rose-tinted period in their life when they were more “artistically pure”. Kickstarter shouldn’t be used to indulge people’s vanity or neuroses and your fans shouldn’t be expected to fund it either. If you’ve got artistic hangups then fix them on your own dime in your own time, and remember even Da Vinci needed to eat.


About Matt

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind and the sarcastic writer, editor, director, presenter and tea boy of Pixel Burn.