"Welcome to Me!":
Homestar Runner as an template for self-publishing
11 December 2003
Abstract: The Flash cartoon site Homestar Runner has defied the odds by becoming a successful and profitable self-published content site. This essay analyzes the factors which make Homestar Runner successful and offers suggestions for using those factors in other self-publishing projects. These factors include a strong concept, good craftsmanship, interactive elements, a regular update schedule, and a solid commerce element.
Keywords: self-publish, content, Homestar Runner, Brothers Chaps, Strong Bad
Portrait of a Web Cartoon
"Oh, hello. Greetings, one and everyone. Welcome to me!... Homestar!... Runner!... Homestar Runner. Um... what else?... I pretty much run the show around here. I date the only girl, and have the only propeller cap, and kick butt, and jump, and kick the fastest, highest, and like nobody's business!"
Welcome to the world of Homestar Runner, the star of a series of web-based Flash cartoons created by the Brothers Chaps, aka Mike and Matt Chapman. The series takes place in the fictional land of Free Country USA, which is home to the dimwitted Homestar, his hippie-ish girlfriend Marzipan, the Brothers Strong (Strong Bad, Strong Mad, and Strong Sad), and a host of others. Homestar and company take part in sports contests, throw parties, go Trick-or-Treating, and even make music videos. It's all tied together with a bold, simple aesthetic and witty dialogue that's clean enough to show to the kids but subversive enough to appeal to the older generation.
And appeal it does. What began as a self-published children's book inspired by the 1996 Olympics has swelled into a massive cult phenomenon with thousands of fans across the globe. The site has been hyped on TV, radio, and magazines--in everything from the New York Times to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the last year alone, the site's popularity has grown to the point where the Brothers Chaps were able to quit their day jobs and support themselves off of sales of merchandise from the site's online store. Furthermore, Homestar Runner does not advertise itself in any way--the site gains new readers strictly by word of mouth.
In a sense, Homestar Runner is the realization of the dream of web gurus everywhere--a self-published, content-based website which has become a successful and even profitable endeavor for its creators. While the "new economy" was coming to a crashing halt, the Brothers Chaps were pulling record numbers of site views and T-shirt sales. Why have the Brothers Chaps succeeded where so many others have failed? Certainly, sheer talent is a contributing factor; the clean artwork, the witty writing, and the vocal abilities of Matt Chapman (who provides the voices for most of the characters) all make the site worth visiting time and again. However, talent can only go so far; a proper presentation is essential to gain and keep the user's interest. An analysis of the design and presentation techniques used in Homestar Runner may help other would-be self-publishers get on the road to success.
I believe that the following elements have contributed to the success of Homestar Runner:
In the following pages, I will show how and why each of these elements makes the site successful, and suggest ways that other web publishers might use them effectively.
- an original concept
- technical craftsmanship
- planned updates
- user interaction
- commerce element
An Original Concept
One thing the Chaps have always prided themselves on is the originality of their work. In fact, the site was largely founded in response to the lack of originality that the Chaps saw on the Internet. "[M]ost of what was out there was...South Park ripoffs or Star Wars parodies," Matt Chapman said in one interview. "We wanted to make something that was not at all like anything else out there" (Norton article).
Which is not to say that Homestar Runner hasn't been influenced by popular culture. On the contrary, the cartoons are littered with references to the music, movies, and video games of the early 1980s. Also, there are occasional brief references to current pop culture, such as Strong Sad carrying an iPod or Homestar using an eBay-like auction site. However, pop culture references never rise above the level of incidental gags. The bulk of the humor is based on character interactions--the various exaggerated personalities bouncing off one another. The characters are so strong, according to the Chaps, that Strong Bad and Homestar could have a conversation about absolutely nothing and it would still be funny (Scott article). From this, we can glean a piece of advice that has been echoed time and time again by creative professionals everywhere: Do what you want to do, instead of trying to follow trends. This is even more true of web-based publishing. As comics guru Scott McCloud says, the beauty of the Internet is that there is no need to pander to a target market, because the market will find you ("10 Suggestions").
A key element of any website, regardless of content, is the technical craftsmanship of the site itself. This includes elements such as ease of navigation, load time, and the overall aesthetics of the website. Homestar Runner is unique in that the site is presented almost exclusively in Flash. A great many Flash-based websites are large, slow, and cumbersome to navigate, and thus deter users rather than drawing them in. However, Mike and Matt Chapman have enough design and programming sense to avoid these pitfalls. For example, they have kept the Flash movies small, both in terms of file size and pixel dimensions. For the most part, the site's content is restricted to a 550- by 400-pixel rectangle in the center of the screen, making it easily viewable on even the smallest screen resolutions. Furthermore, the Flash menus average around 100k in size--not tiny, by any means, but reasonably sized even for dialup users.
The site, like the cartoon itself, has a consistent aesthetic built around bold primary colors and simple rounded shapes. Thus, even though the navigation layout varies quite a bit from page to page, the simple aesthetic ensures that links are always easy to find. "We didn't want any distractions," said Mike Chapman in a recent interview. "Once you're there, you're there. And you know that everything you see there, you're supposed to be seeing" (Chinsang article).
By far the most popular feature of Homestar Runner is the Strong Bad Emails. In these weekly cartoon shorts, Strong Bad, Homestar's luchador-costumed antagonist, answers actual fan emails in his trademark abusive manner. The emails range from Dear Abby-style relationship dilemmas to questions about what the characters do in their spare time. The fact that Strong Bad inevitably makes fun of the sender doesn't seem to deter anyone; he still gets roughly 7,000 emails every day (Gumbrecht article), and the site receives upwards of 250,000 hits on Monday mornings when new installments are posted (Dean article). What makes the Strong Bad Emails so appealing to people? I feel that the key factor is the element of user interaction that the emails offer. Instead of just passively watching the cartoons as one would watch a movie or a TV show, the user has the option to interact with the characters directly, making the cartoons an active experience.
The user-interaction element of the Strong Bad Emails has a number of interesting consequences for Homestar Runner in general. Being able to 'talk' to the characters makes them seem more real to the audience, and therefore makes the user feel more engaged with the show and its characters. Outside input adds a layer of unpredictability that keeps the series from becoming stale. But perhaps most significantly, the material that comes up in these emails becomes an established part of the cartoon's "world." A misspelling of Homestar's name in an early email led to the creation of his eccentric cousin Homsar. When one viewer asked why Strong Bad hadn't conquered the world yet, we were introduced to the sovereign nation of Strongbadia--actually a vacant lot--which has been the setting of many cartoons since then. Another reader asked Strong Bad to draw a dragon, in order to see his "skills of an artist." Strong Bad promptly drew a stick-figure dragon and named him "Trogdor the Burninator." Trogdor has since become one of the most popular characters in the Homestar universe, spawning T-shirts, bumper stickers, and a video game in which the player must destroy a village while avoiding dragon-slaying knights. In short, through the interaction of the Strong Bad Emails, the individual user has the potential to actively shape the world of Free Country USA and its inhabitants.
User interaction becomes a key element in many of the other cartoons as well, in the form of easter eggs. As any veteran video gamer will tell you, an easter egg is a hidden element in a game or other program, inserted by the programmers as a surprise for the inquisitive user. Most of the cartoons on the site, and even some of the menu pages, contain easter eggs in the form of hidden buttons which trigger extra animations. Each egg that the user discovers encourages him or her to explore even further, and become more and more engaged in the site. Again, the activity of viewing the site switches from passive to active in a way that would be virtually impossible in any other medium.
As previously mentioned, the Strong Bad Emails are usually updated on Monday mornings. Sometimes, delays will keep the Chaps from updating until the evening, or a new short cartoon or game will appear in place of a new email. But it is extremely rare for new content to appear on any day other than a Monday. A regular update schedule is one of the ways that the Chaps retain viewers.
To show why this is the case, let's look at an opposing scenario. Suppose you go to a website that is updated "whenever I feel like it." If the content is good enough, you'll probably be inclined to check on the site regularly to see if it's been updated. If the site is updated fairly frequently, this won't change; you'll continue to check the site, because more often than not you will be "rewarded" with new content. However, if the webmaster goes for a long period of time without updating, viewers will be less and less inclined to keep checking the site as time goes on. When new content finally is released, it will be enjoyed by a considerably diminished viewing audience. On the other hand, by providing new content on the same day of the week, every week, the Brothers Chaps give a strong incentive for users to come back again and again. Many of those users will look at the site only on the day of the week that the site is updated, but they will be there every week like clockwork.
Unfortunately, for many web publishers, a regular update schedule may not be feasible--particularly if one must plan site updates around school or a day job. In that case, a reasonable alternative is a mailing list which will inform loyal viewers of new updates. However, this requires that the user be interested enough in the site to justify the time and effort needed to register for the mailing list. Established sites with a great deal of existing content may be able to hook new viewers in this way, but those who are just starting out will have trouble gaining an audience. Thus, working out a regular update schedule, and advertising that schedule on the website, is ultimately the best solution.
Thus far, I have analyzed the elements which have allowed Homestar Runner to gain such a large viewing audience. However, a large audience isn't beneficial to a web publisher in and of itself; in fact, it can actually be detrimental due to bandwidth costs (McCloud, "Coins"). The ideal way to offset this is to find some way to earn money from one's fan base. Traditionally, the way to do this has been through online advertising, but this has proven to be extremely ineffective. For their own part, the Brothers Chaps have been dead-set against advertising from the very beginning, as a part of their ideal of having no distractions on the site. Their profit comes purely from the site's online store, through which they sell T-shirts, hats, action figures, and various other merchandise featuring characters from the cartoon. Recently, they even released "Strong Bad Sings," an album containing extended versions of various songs heard in the cartoons.
Merchandising is, of course, just one of many options for adding a commerce element to a website. I will not go into any detail here, as I have already written a substantial essay on the subject. Suffice it to say that any serious self-publisher must have some sort of plan for earning money off his or her website, if for no other reason than to try to cover the expenses involved in creating it.
Conclusion: a word on commitment
Naturally, the "formula" which made Homestar Runner such a success will not work for everyone. Every self-publisher will have to adapt the presentation of the site to suit the content and style of the material that they wish to publish. However, there is one quality above all which is necessary for successful web publishing: commitment to the concept and execution.
The importance of commitment may seem to be at odds with the user interaction element which makes the Strong Bad Emails so appealing. However, I would contend that the Strong Bad Emails retain their appeal because of the Chaps' commitment to their concept. Despite all of the alterations brought about by user input, Strong Bad's character remains essentially the same. The same goes for the rest of the characters; although they have evolved over time, they remain true to the Chaps' original vision, rather than being controlled solely by user input. Any would-be web publisher must be similarly committed. One must be committed enough to stay true to one's own vision and not pander to the audience's whims. One must be committed enough to retain a high level of craft throughout the site. One must be committed enough to keep working on the site even if it seems that no one cares about it; after all, Homestar Runner didn't really take off until it had been online for two years, and in print for even longer than that.
Following these guidelines is no guarantee of success as a web publisher, but then again, there is never any guarantee of success in any medium. But if you have the skills, the brains, and the dedication to carry it out, you have a good chance of making your mark. As Strong Bad puts it, "Who knows? Maybe tomorrow you'll be really big in Pakistan. Or at least, with some guy named Stan."
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