Twenty-five years ago, Iraq invaded Kuwait, Twin Peaks debuted on ABC, Milli Vanilli were exposed as lip-synching frauds, and brothers Brian and Steve Raffel founded a little company called Raven Software in Madison. A quarter-century is the equivalent of an eon in the tumultuous video game industry, but Raven’s still soaring, having created or contributed to nearly 30 games for PC and consoles, including Call of Duty: Ghosts and Call of Duty Advanced Warfare.
To mark the occasion, Isthmus asked Brian Raffel to grab his controller and revisit some of the highs, lows and unexpected twists of his company’s storied career.
So tell us, what was it like when…
...you and Steve first looked at each other and said, “We could start a game company”?
“I remember that day well. It was around Thanksgiving 1988, and we had been looking over some games on the Amiga, a computer with great graphics, with some of our friends. Steve and I had been working on a Dungeons and Dragons module idea we called ‘The Well’ and were also teaching ourselves computer art on our Amigas. While looking at the new Amiga games it struck us that our art was as good as and in some cases better than what we saw. As we were packing up to head home, Steve looked at me and said we should make our own computer game. That idea instantly clicked and made sense, and off we started on that goal.”
...you learned that Chris Rhinehart and five other key Raven employees were leaving to form Human Head in 1997?
“Steve and I both saw the wisdom of aligning our studio with a strategic partner like Activision. We knew they would allow us to take Raven to the next level and let us focus on the games. The Human Head group wasn’t interested in being owned by a publisher. I understand that they enjoyed working together and controlling their own destiny, but it didn’t soften the blow. I thought that if they stayed awhile they’d see Activision wasn’t an invasive company [and] that they’d let us remain true to our culture under their independent studio model. But the day we announced our decision, the Human Head group went off for an early lunch. I could tell something was not sitting right. Then they all drove back together and wanted to talk to me. Not a great day.”
...you made the decision to accept Activision’s acquisition offer?
“We had been talking to several publishers, but when we met with Bobby Kotich and Brian Kelly of Activision, we could tell they were most likely the one. Unfortunately, on our journey to meet them face to face, one of the plane engines went out on our take-off from Milwaukee. There was a ‘boom,’ and the plane started to drop and list to the left. I remember Steve looking at me and asking, ‘What is Raven going to do without us?’ All I could think was, we’re gonna crash into that mall below. Suddenly the plane adjusted and came around for an emergency landing. When we finally did meet with Activision, we knew right away it was the perfect fit. Bobby and Brian were very impressive. We could tell they’d keep us happy and set us up for success. At that time they were the 15th-ranked publisher, and we were their first studio acquisition. Now we’re part of an impressive stable of studios and the best publisher in the world.”
...you realized you were going to have to shift from PC development, where you had made your name and reputations, to console development?
“Consoles weren’t forced on us — they were something we wanted to do as a studio. We knew that while PC will forever be in our DNA, there was a lot of great upside with the emerging console market. It wasn’t an easy transition, though, as we worked on our first Marvel title X-Men Legends, but it was fun to learn a new technology. This was what was great about being with Activision, the access to great new technologies and cool franchises we all loved and grew up with.”
...you first put on a motion-capture suit in your new studio?
“I personally only put the suit on once and acted for some Quake IV animations. I was driving a flying transport. I’m sure it ended up on the cutting room floor, as it certainly takes a real talent to do motion-capture professionally. That said, we were the first studio to get MoCap at Activision. At first they all thought I was crazy, but it turned out to be a very big boon to us, and soon several more studios followed. Now it’s a standard requirement for most studios. Why I decided to go after this technology was mostly to do with being in Madison. When working on Quake IV we spent a month and a half working hard on making our game seem full of activity, but during those six weeks we got only three animations done. At that pace we would never hit the mark, so we looked at using one of the premier motion capture studios in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the cost was very high to fly our guys out, rent the actors and studio and pay for clean-up and delivery of the data. We quickly realized it was much more cost effective to buy the hardware and use it here in-house in Madison.”
...you realized that you were working on games based on not one, not two, but three major pop-culture properties at once?
“It was very cool to be sure. I will never forget the call I got from my boss at that time, Larry Goldberg. He asked me, ‘Hey, would you like to work on Star Wars?’ [Raven developed 2002’s Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Outcast II and 2003’s Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy for PC and Mac.] At that time, there were only three Star Wars movies, and no Jar Jar, so of course we said yes. We flew to LucasArts many times, and they said they were going to take us to Skywalker Ranch, but something always came up. Then, the one time I didn’t go, they took Eric Biessman, a 21-year Raven employee and creative director, to the Ranch, where he sat right by George Lucas at the cafeteria.
“Star Trek was also another exciting opportunity. I got to go to Paramount Pictures Studio and walk on the set of Star Trek: Voyager, very much a dream come true.
“With Marvel, we had two great opportunities. First, our creative director Dan Vondrak got to fly out to Australia and go on the set of Wolverine to meet Hugh Jackman. I didn’t go because I had just gotten back from Europe, was underwater and couldn’t fly all the way to Australia. I definitely regret that decision. For our E3 promotion of X-Men Legends, we had the great Stan Lee promote our game. I was given the privilege of working with him at the show, and I spent some time talking to him. I told him about the Spiderman club me and my brothers had as kids. He was very nice and asked me to take a picture of the crowds lining up for his autograph because his wife could not believe it. He was so humble and also an amazing man.”
...you realized you were going to have to lay off some employees?
“This was tough, clearly my hardest and darkest time. During my first 18-plus years of Raven, all we ever did was increase our head count. But with the hard hit to the 2008-2009 economy, our industry changed dramatically. Instead of working on three games at the same time, we found ourselves needing to tighten our belts and refocus our business. I have found over the years that as a company you have to move or die. This was another one of those adjustments, like switching from the Amiga to the PC, to the console, or from pixels to polygons, or motion-capture animations. This adjustment was personally hugely difficult for me, but it was an unfortunate part of the business world. We shrunk a bit, but have now grown back to a higher head count than we had previously. We’ve also taken on a sister studio in Shanghai, so we’ve recovered and adjusted to be stronger than we ever were before.”
...you first saw the Raven logo on the opening credits of the final cut of Call of Duty: Ghosts?
“A great feeling for sure after the layoffs and readjusting our whole way of doing business and creating games. We were part of something bigger and working with some really great studios. Call of Duty is such a great franchise to work on, and we are really enjoying it.”
What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened in your 25 years in the industry?
“[There were] so many unexpected events on this 25-year journey. I think one of the biggest would be meeting game industry giants Id Software, creators of DOOM and QUAKE, here in Madison. Id Software was a key part of us being in business and still around today. John Carmack and John Romero came to our studios and picked us to partner with them. Using their state-of-the-art technology was weird and fortuitous, as it gave us the ability to create stunning work and really get noticed for the first time. We owe them a lot.”
What is Raven’s most underrated game, and why?
“That is easily our own title Singularity . We’re all very proud of it. My brother Steve came up with the initial concept, and he then created a prototype with a small team. When we showed it to Activision executives, they all were very enthusiastic. Then our creative director Dan Vondrak took the concept to the final game stage and did a masterful job of blending in horror, sci-fi and action. The game came out during the worst of the economic conditions, so it didn’t reach expectations on the sales front. However, it has been on the most underrated games lists over the past few years. I know for a fact there are many people itching for Singularity 2... and Hexen 3... and Soldier of Fortune 3.”