WTN Interview: Raven's Brian Raffel on why Wisconsin can be a hot bed for gaming industy and innovation

WTN Interview: Raven's Brian Raffel on why Wisconsin can be a hot bed for gaming industy and innovation

Editor’s Note: Raven Software has 185 employees and is located in Madison, Wisconsin. They are best known as a creative gaming studio that produced such hits as Quake 4, Wolfenstein, X-men, Star Wars, Star Trek, Soldier of Fortune and more. In this interview with WTN News, Raven Software co-founder Brian Raffel who currently serves as VP & Studio Head, provides his perspectives and visions on innovation and gaming and why Wisconsin can be a hot bed for the games industry and grow a substantial employee base for the region.
Mike Klein: (WTN News) In terms of innovation breakthrough new technologies, products and what is Raven Software doing today and where you are headed.

Brian Raffel

Brian Raffel: My brother and I formed Raven Software twenty years ago. We were the first two employees and we currently have one hundred and eighty five. We are working on three major projects at the time at this point. One is Wolfenstein, one is Wolverine the movie game and one is Singularity one of our own original games.
WTN News: What really makes Raven Software unique? How have you been able to survive for this long in the software industry?
Brian Raffel: Activision now owns Raven Software as a wholly owned subsidiary. I am the studio head. Raven is a studio and we can do many type of games very well, we also have the ability to do original intellectual property (IP) and we also do really well at licensing game that we have created such as Star Trek and Star Wars, Wolverine and Wolfenstein and have done quite well. We have won many awards for doing a really good job at the licensing games. We also have the ability to create different types of genre games. We can create first person shooters and we can create role playing games. That’s what puts us and keeps us on the map because of our versatility and our ability to work well with lots of other different studios. This capability is not something that a lot of other studios possess. Most studios can do one game really well, and have to, and they do it over and over and after that’s done they of out business.
WTN News: Raven is a very innovative company. Do you have any formal innovation initiatives that allow employees or projects to surface and become commercialized?

Brian Raffel: We are trying to make the whole culture here conducive to innovation. We are a very open culture with my brother and I and our key development team taking part in innovation efforts. We plug into Activision as being part of our whole studio network where all of us share a lot of good information. It’s always having the openness and the culture to adapt those new changes.
WTN News: What is it in the culture that encourages people to come forward with not just with hardware, software innovation but also with emerging technologies?
Brian Raffel: We start with the fact that we make sure that our core competencies are that we have people that are adaptable and community team players. We also structure the teams in a way that there is lot of openness and collaboration across different lines within the studio. I think that the way we have evolved has set up those types of things to become a second nature.
WTN News: Have one of these innovations turned into patterns or commercialized products?
Brian Raffel: Every time we do a game there has to be some new. Let’s take Wolverine as an example, since its fresh, but you know we have taken this character which has been done before when we have had a lot of new moves and new abilities and new approaches to the game that have never been done with this character before and I am going to give him a fresh perspective and a freshness to the gaming community from a game play standpoint. So it’s usually a lot of the innovation come in game play.
WTN News: What are the breakthrough innovations that you can develop into a game?
Brian Raffel: There are lots of different technologies we have adapted. Much of the time we are working with different groups, but sometimes like in the past it’s been with the technologies that the left and right motion, but also to look up and down. The first time we put motion capture into our games and that innovation really seemed to sound off most resonantly with the customer base.
WTN News: From a technology perspective what has been the greatest advancement in the technology that you have been able to purchase or utilize and where and when do the breakthroughs come
Brian Raffel: The breakthrough usually come on the new next generation of game councils We had some of the first games on Nintendo and so forth, but then we had the first Xbox and the next generation Playstation 2, and now we have Playstation3, Xbox 360 and next new leap is going to be those next councils and then beyond that. There is some other stuff on horizon which is going to ellipse that so it’s always the greatest and nearest now.
WTN News: How do you track new tools when developing new games? Are they linked to new microprocessors and graphics technology?
Brian Raffel: No, it used to be in the past very PC-centric or it was what’s the next Intel shipment, and what’s the next video card, and what are the next drivers. Those are the ones we watch carefully, but now all the industry is locked into the councils. Xbox 360, Playstation and the big three are the ones that are really in the driver seats right now.
WTN News: In terms of the software industry in Wisconsin where do you see the state of it today and what would be your vision for how we might develop further in Madison and statewide?
Brian Raffel: I think there is potential to create a hot bed for a game industry in Wisconsin. I see this happening. We had a couple of spin offs with Human Head Studios and with others, but they haven’t really been that successful, which kind of hurts us in some ways. I mean there are more opportunities for people and we have the need for more people to move here and be employed in the games industry. The current hot beds in the gamming industry are Austin, Dallas, Seattle, LA, and San Francisco. Those are the bigger ones and if you look at Dallas and the Austin area, those are particularly by one strong studio and a software [firm] moves to Dallas which builds other companies, and that built the whole base. From there Austin was built from Origin Systems and they actually built a school then called Guildhall which brought more people. So that’s the reason we are reaching out to the universities and technical schools to bring these people in. Then satellite industries will pop up like maybe some motion capture companies. Maybe there are other opportunities for facial animation companies or some other kind of new technical future you know so those are some of the reason that all of these things are important.
WTN News: Can you review with me your outreach to the university and the public sector and what you are doing to try to make Wisconsin a hot bed for game development?

Brian Raffel: We work with the University of Wisconsin on many things like motion capture and we talking with a professor from MATC who came in here and he has been doing mentoring here and helping MATC with their developer program. We went to UW-Whitewater and are actually sponsoring and helping them to create a game development program that will attract people to learn how to do game development. The MATC program here in Madison started and they have waiting list for students to join the class. It’s hard to find people like me who want to go out and teach gaming rather than do it professionally.