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It’s All Fun And Games in Madison - Raven Software Celebrates 15 Anniversary

MADISON, WI - It’s the kind of story that makes you smile, and wish you’d been in that basement in 1988. Raven Software, a Madison-based developer of computer games, has come from two brothers working on a game on their Commodore Amiga, to being acquired by the second-largest game producer in the nation. Now with 95 employees and numerous hit games, Raven Software is a dream come true for its founders.

Brian and Steve Raffel, brothers who had backgrounds in art, decided to chuck it all one day, collaborate with a programmer and develop a game. They sent their demo to ten publishers, Brian Raffel said. “They all said ‘We’ll get back to you in two or three months. We get these things all the time.’” Raffel said. “In two or three days, we had six offers.” They’d hit a home run. The brothers flew to Los Angeles twice during that time, which was the first time Raffel had flown on an airplane, he said.

The Verona High School graduates’ first game, Black Crypt, was a hit. It was the second most-popular game in Europe when it came out in 1992, Raffel said. Black Crypt was nominated for Game of the Year in the Arcade Adventure category and won the Super Accolade Award from Amiga Action Magazine. It is widely regarded as one of the top 100 Amiga games of all time. Raven Software’s other hits have included Soldier of Fortune, Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix, Heretic, Heretic II, HeXen, HeXen II, Take No Prisoners, MageSlayer, Necrodome, Deathkings of the Dark Citadel, ShadowCaster, Star Trek: Voyager—Elite Force, Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, and its most current release: Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy.

Nowadays, since Activision acquired the company in 1997, Raven Software collaborates with its parent company on new games. “In the early days, we did more original work, but there’s less risk involved for them now in the licensing stuff,” said Raffel, who is an Activision vice president and Raven Software studio head. “A Star Wars game, as a business decision, has less risk.” The company currently is working on an X-Men game.

Spaced Out
Raffel said the company has expanded recently, and now occupies two different office spaces. While they are close in proximity, he said they may be looking to move into one space again.
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Employees at Raven Software are changing demographics, too. “Some of our employees who have been here since they were young are now married and having kids, it’s exciting,” Raffel said. “There are a lot of employees with young children.”

Raffel said Madison isn’t particularly a big draw for computer gaming experts, but the company does have employees from all over the world including some from England, Florida and Hawaii. “It’s a nice place to live and the cost of living is reasonable,” Raffel said. “We tend to draw from the Midwest well; the big downside is our winters.”

Until recently, Raven Software was only equipped to develop computer games in-house, and their coding and development for consoles was done by other companies, Raffel said. However the company’s recent expansion brought that capability in house and he said they license software that makes it as easy as possible to do that.

Gruesome Games
Whenever Congress brings up violent video games, Raffel said of course they hear about it. However, the company has tried to help parents keep its violent games from children with a parental lock.

He said an independent ratings board rates video games, and submitting a game to the ratings board is voluntary. He also said it’s up to the distributor, such as Walmart, how they want to handle games deemed violent.

Back To The Future
In the past 15 years, Raffel said a lot has changed about the computer game industry. “There has been big consolidation. When we were first bought, there were 15 publishers and now there are only four. Kind of like what happened in the record industry. That’s part of why we pursued being acquired so we could have an umbrella of resources to make sure we’d survive.”

Asked how it would be to start the company today, Raffel said, “It was definitely much easier back then. Publishers are more savvy about what to look for now. Also, we have 30 to 35 people working on one game, and it would be difficult to get those resources just starting out.”

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Jennifer Braico is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Wisconsin Technology Network. She can be reached at jen@wistechnology.com.

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