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Game change: Raven Software’s Raffel goes from dreamer to player and beyond

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When it comes to the strange, inspiring history of Madison’s Raven Software, you can pretty much pick whichever story suits you: Either the company was a fantastic, head-spinning success right out of the gate, or it was the clear embodiment of Thomas Edison’s famous axiom that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

For Brian Raffel, Raven’s studio head and one of its two co-founders (with his brother Steve), Edison’s recipe is probably closer to the truth, though there was plenty of luck and magic in the mix to help sustain this lifelong gamer’s dream.

“The thing that you don’t see is that for two or so years, my brother and I worked on that demo and everyone thought we were crazy. It’s like trying to say you’re going to be a rock star or something.” – Brian Raffel

The story of industry giant Raven goes back to 1986, when Raffel and his brother, at the time both hard-core Dungeons & Dragons players, were looking over a friend’s new computer games. Noticing that the games’ artwork wasn’t as good as what Brian (then a Middleton High School art teacher) and Steve (then a silk screen printer) could do, Steve turned to Brian and said, “We should make our own computer game.”

That started the brothers on a roughly two-year quest to get their game off the ground. The problem? They had no programming experience and no real idea how to begin.

“This was in the late ’80s, so there weren’t a lot of computer programmers out there, but I had a roommate at the time who told us how we had to do it,” said Raffel, the featured speaker at IB’s March 7 Icons in Business presentation. “We actually plotted out a whole demo and figured out, oh my God, it’s going to take hundreds and hundreds of images.”

The two got started, and on a shoestring budget, with a lot of hard work, and with the help of a 19-year-old programmer they’d found through an Amiga computer dealer in Janesville, they managed to get their demo – a fantasy adventure game called Black Crypt – completed. And that’s where the strange and inspiring part of the story started.

“We sent that demo out to 10 publishers, and they all said it would take months to get back to us – ‘we get them all the time,’” said Raffel. “And we’re like, ‘okay.’ And in three days, we had six offers. So that was pretty cool.”

Move or die

In retrospect, it might look as though the Raffels and Raven were destined to succeed. After all, the company currently employs around 140 in the Madison area and has worked on some of the biggest titles in the industry, including Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, one of the top-selling video games in history.

But at the time, given the brothers’ lack of experience and their seemingly outlandish goal, there was no shortage of naysayers.

“The thing that you don’t see is that for two or so years, my brother and I worked on that demo and everyone thought we were crazy,” said Raffel. “It’s like trying to say you’re going to be a rock star or something. ‘Yeah, sure you are.’ I think also at the time, people didn’t have the same sort of perspective on games as they do now. They didn’t realize how much money you can make on them and how prevalent they can be.”

“Prevalent” to say the least. According to Forbes, the global market for video games is expected to grow at a healthy clip, from $67 billion in 2012 to $82 billion in 2017. And in the blink of an eye, the most popular titles can vault into the stratosphere. In fact, in its first day on store shelves back in November 2011, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 raked in a gaudy $400 million.

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Feb 12, 2013 07:07 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

An interesting thing you forgot to mention is that essentially computer games are big animated movies only more complex- and when you work on national trademarked concepts like Xmen, Star Trek etc.you have limited rights to content.
A major training ground for gaming in the 1990s was comic books - Raven benefited a lot by the differences in pay etc. between that industry and gaming similar to what has happened over the years with movie story boarding in Hollywood.
A nice article

May 9, 2013 01:10 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Here's a graphic on the rise of "virtual kingdoms" many of which really are startups/homegrown projects that explode: http://www.onlinegamedesignschools.org/esports/

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