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

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.


But particularly in an industry like video gaming, if you’re standing still, you’re falling farther and farther behind, and Raffel is well aware of the pressures game developers are under to stay ahead of the curve.

“Yeah, our philosophy here is move or die,” said Raffel, who took over as Raven’s studio head when the company was sold to Activision Blizzard in 1997. “It’s those people who can’t change, who start believing their own press – the next thing you know they think they’re number one, and all of a sudden, holy cow, what’s this new company, what do they do?

“You look at Blockbuster; they were huge, and all of a sudden this Netflix thing comes around and, wait a minute, we’re out of business.”

Indeed, some of the same content-delivery changes that bedeviled traditional video stores could now be poised to disrupt the gaming industry. For instance, a gaming service called Steam roughly follows Netflix’s business model, making games available for download and bypassing brick-and-mortar retailers.

But according to Raffel, being a content developer rather than a content deliverer puts Raven on surer footing than some in the industry, giving it greater opportunities to adjust as the ground shifts beneath other established companies.

“The good news for us is, you look at Blockbuster, they’re a delivery service,” said Raffel. “We make the content that people look for, so we’re going to preserve that. As long as we make content that’s compelling and people have an interest in, the medium, whether it’s Xbox or PS3 or Steam, that’s just a different venue for our creativity. So on that front, I feel pretty good. I think there’s actually some better opportunities.”

If anything, says Raffel, a move toward the downloading of content could help a company like Raven improve its profit margins.

“The nice thing about [a service like Steam] as a publisher is we don’t have to pay for the cost of the goods, the DVDs or the boxes or anything,” said Raffel. “We don’t have to pay to ship it to Best Buy, we don’t have to pay Best Buy, and we don’t have to pay for the shelf space and that sort of thing. The profit margins go up higher and give us more room, and that’s a trend.”

Seizing the moment

Raffel also sees tremendous opportunities in emerging foreign markets like China, where, he says, there are 200 to 300 million potential gamers. Another big trend in gaming is the use of microtransactions. As many Facebookers know, games like FarmVille or Bejeweled Blitz are free to play (and often addicting), allowing users to buy virtual goods or “boosts” to aid players in achieving in-game goals.

“That’s the other trend that we’re going to be up against,” said Raffel. “It’s kind of like that iTunes mentality – paying 99 cents here for that sword or that helmet upgrade – and that’s kind of where things are probably going to be heading.”

If that sounds like a business model that could leave traditional game publishers reeling (after all, why pay $60 for a new game when you can play for free?), Raffel seems unruffled, seeing opportunities even in this radically different environment.


“I think it could help us overall, because what we’re finding is that sometimes you generate more money that way,” said Raffel. “Imagine if all of a sudden Call of Duty was free, we’d probably have 100 million people playing it. … But in Asia, that’s the only way they tend to play. They’re not going to play anything unless they can play it free, and then they’ll upgrade.”

Changes and challenges

Today, Raffel is a long way from where he started – whether you’re talking about his days as a Middleton High art teacher or as a fledgling game developer. He’s still a gamer – he acknowledges immersing himself in the World of Warcraft universe “to get my mind off everything” – but his responsibilities with the company have shifted significantly.

“My focus has been on business and management the last probably 10 years, so that’s a big turn that I hadn’t expected,” said Raffel. “And we were as high as 190 people at one point – we’re at 140 now – and that’s a game in and of itself, learning to keep people motivated and planning for what you want to have for your people and how you want to handle them and dealing with insurance.

“Then, after we got acquired by Activision, we had to adjust to being a corporate entity. Lots of changes and lots of challenges, but I guess that’s what I’ve always really liked about this industry is that it continues to change and challenge you instead of forcing you to do the same thing every year and every day. There are always new programs, new tech, new opportunities. We’ve worked on Star Trek and Star Wars and Marvel, and now Call of Duty, and so it’s been quite a fun career.”

If you would like to see Raffel speak at the March 7 Icons in Business event, click here for information on registration and event details.

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