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From Dungeon & Dragons to Call of Duty: The Story of Raven Software

Nestled in the upper midwest, the studio behind Heretic and Soldier of Fortune has survived to make video games for nearly 25 years now. Here's how they've done it.

Analysis by Kat Bailey, .

In an industry as volatile as video games, simple longevity can occasionally be its own reward. Just ask Raven Software.

Nestled in the upper Midwest, it has managed to outlast better-known contemporaries such as Origin and LucasArts. Even the leadership remains largely unchanged, which is practically unheard of in the past-paced world of game development. Over the years, they've worked on a wide range of projects, from well-known shooters like Quake 4 to licensed games like Jedi Academy and X-Men Legends, and in the misty past, Black Crypt and Shadowcaster

In that, Brian Raffel considers himself lucky. Along with his brother Steve, Raffel founded Raven in 1990, and he's been with the studio ever since, shepherding it through period in which it was a four person outfit working out of what amounts to a Madison, Wisconsin garage to a 130 person subsidiary of Activision.

"My brother and I never aspired to become millionaires," Raffel tells me at one point over the phone. "We loved working on creative projects, and that was what it was all about."

As Raffel has discovered over 25 years in the industry, however, gaming is also a business. And a cold one at that. Raven's ability to navigate those harsh realities have been part of what has kept them in business for as long as they have, though not without cost.

Black Crypt and John Romero

If you were a gamer of a certain age in the 1980s, there was a very good chance that you enjoyed playing Dungeon and Dragons. Many well-known developers over the years, from BioWare founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, to Obsidian Entertainment's Josh Sawyer, to Doom's own John Romero got their start in tabletop roleplaying. Brian and Steve Raffel were no exception.

In the late mid-to-late 1980s, Brian was working as an art teacher, while his brother Steve was a printer. At night they would play modules like Palace of the Silver Princess, Tomb of Horrors, Tomb of Martek, and Castle Amber-all "old-school" adventures that left a certain amount of wiggle room for DM's to add their own flourishes. Both Brian and his brother had art backgrounds, and after spending some time designing paper modules, they decided to try their hand at making a computer game, so they found programmers Ben Gokey and Rick Johnson and set to work on the game that would eventually become Black Crypt-a first-person RPG with real-time 3D movement that prefigured their move into first-person shooters a few years later.

The Raffel brothers and their small team labored over a demo for "a couple years," with Brian often working when he had spare time over summer break or vacation. When the demo was finally complete, they sent it off to ten different publishers. "They all kind of said the same thing: 'Here's our disclaimer, we'll get back to you in about two to three months, we get these all the time.' By Tuesday though, we already had six to eight offers, so it went pretty well," says Brian Raffel. "So that's kind of how we got started-with a passion for fantasy, roleplaying, art, and games."

What would eventually become Raven Software mostly worked on the Amiga at first, since it was the first computer that could really handle their art, Raffel says. Black Crypt used a graphics mode that supported 64 colors rather than the usual 32, and the result was ornate statues, richer looking corridors, and other touches. Today, Black Crypt is mostly forgotten; but for its time, it was a striking RPG that received very favorable reviews.

Their first contract in hand, the Raffel brothers went into game development full-time, and the team moved into a $200 per month office, which sat under a garage in Madison. The rest of the group mostly worked from home, only meeting a couple times per week. With the success of Black Crypt, though, the team began to grow, rising from four in 1990 to 12 not long after. This being the early '90s, the logistics of coordinating with publishers based on the West Coast and developers working from home could often be fraught.

"You think about how much you take the Internet for granted now, I mean, we had to FedEx our builds to EA, and if you missed the deadline, you had to drive a hundred miles an hour to the airport to make sure that it got sent out that night," Raffel remembers. "So it was just a different world from what we're used to now, but it was a lot of fun because we were working with smaller teams, and it was a really exciting time."

Indeed, Raffel had entered the games business at an opportune time. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a new wave of developers and publishers rose to join familiar names like Microprose, among them Maxis (SimCity), Bullfrog Productions (Populous, Dungeon Keeper), and a little later, BioWare. LucasArts also began to make significant inroads with the Star Wars license around this period, all while retaining its strong adventure game legacy.

Influential as these developers were in the late '90s, however, arguably none of them made as many as id Software did in the period after being founded in 1991. And as it happened, id Software was just down the street from Raven Software. What followed was a relationship that would last across more than 15 years and a half-dozen games.

Soon after the launch of Black Crypt on the Amiga, Electronic Arts began pushing Raven Software to move over to the PC, which they felt had a larger potential market. The Raffel brothers responded by putting out an ad for a PC programmer, which was spotted by one John Romero, who would soon become legendary for his work with id Software.

At the time, id Software was based in Madison, Wisconsin due to the urging of co-founder Tom Hall, who was both a Badger State native and a University of Wisconsin graduate. Being a typically proud Midwesterner, Hall had touted as a great town for the fledgling studio, which had gotten its original start in Shreveport, Louisiana. "Of course, he didn't tell them about the winter," Raffel laughs.

Having spotted Raven Software's ad, the team from id Software made arrangements to meet with the Raffels and their group, and were immediately impressed by the art they had produced. Raven Software, meanwhile, was "blown away" by their early look at Wolfenstein 3D. Soon after, the two studios began working together closely.

"I remember seeing their office for the first time and being pretty impressed because they had Fax Machines," Raffel says fondly, "and we thought that was high-end tech."

Raven Software quickly fell into a pattern where they would license id Software's technology following a successful debut game-a pattern that would become Raven's modus operandi over time. At the time, id Software's engines were unmatched, and being a key partner gave Raven Software a firsthand look at John Carmack's particular brilliance. Raffel remembers once asking Carmack if he could come by Raven's studio and to demonstrate some of his techniques: "He said, ''Yeah, no problem, it's really easy.' So he came over for a little bit and talked to my programmers, and after he was done they said, 'There's no way in hell we can do this.'"

Which was not to say that Raven had nothing to offer to id Software. Shortly after Wolfenstein 3D's released in 1992, Raven Software began work on Shadowcaster - another first-person RPG, this time using the Wolfenstein engine. While Shadowcaster was in development, Raffel remembers some of the art catching id Software's attention. "We were doing tiles for Shadowcaster that looked really good, and they even wanted to buy some of them from us." Raven also wasn't above modding id Software's engines for their own purposes, as was the case with 1994's Heretic, which differed from Doom in the ability to look up and down.

During this period, the Raven team was closest with John Romero, who worked closely with them on Heretic and Hexen despite having moved down to Dallas with the rest of the id Software team in 1992. As id Software's man of many hats-Romero was a programmer, designer, and tester as well as a liaison with the studio's partners-he was available at all hours to give Raven advice on whatever project they happened to be working on at that moment.

"John Romero was our creative director at id that we dealt with, and he was awesome to work with. He would be at two in the morning playing our game and calling us up and giving us feedback, providing us good ideas, and just being very encouraging while we learned the tech." Raffel says. "We'd go out to dinner and movies and all that until [id Software] moved down to the Dallas area. After that, we'd fly down there every once in a while for some brainstorming together, and maybe drive around high-end go-karts."

Heretic, which was based on the Doom engine, ended up being Raven's big break. Though it received mostly middling reviews, its fantasy trappings helped it to stand out from the glut of Doom clones flooding the market in the early '90s, and it quickly garnered a dedicated audience. "id Software knew their market, and with their engine behind it, it was obviously a really big deal," Raffel says matter-of-factly.

The good times continued for a few more years as Raven put out Hexen, a sequel that introduced a class-based system among other improvements, the following year, as well as an expansion entitled Shadow of the Serpent Riders. Along the way, they continued to release a steady of stream of smaller gamers, dabbling in vehicular combat, action, and top-down hack-and-slash dungeon crawling with Necrodome, Take No Prisoners, and Mageslayer respectively.

Changes were coming, though. Matters came to a head in 1997 when the Raffel brothers decided they want to sell to a parent company, shaking Raven to its foundations and splitting the formerly tight-knit studio for the first time.

Rules of Acquisition

"Our culture was really family-oriented. We were in the upper Midwest, everyone was really nice, and we all worked together," Raffel says.

"Family" is a term that comes up a lot in connection with Raven. It's clear that he values the bonds built up over years of working together. Raffel mentions Eric Biessman, who was a key designer on Hexen and has been with the studio for more than twenty years. Though there have been plenty of changes at Raven over the years, the studio has mostly managed to retain a core of developers from an inception, which is not something that many studios can claim in an industry where turnover is common.

In 1997, though, Raven's family culture was beginning to fray. Tired of the pressures of running a studio, the Raffel brothers decided that it was time to sell: " We could see that things were starting to head toward consolidation, and my brother and I were like, 'Hey, we just want to work on games.' I was also doing all of the business stuff. I was doing the payroll, working with the accountants, working with the lawyer, negotiating contracts... so I was getting kind of tired of that. Part of that whole period was making a very difficult decision to find looking for that right partner while also working on Hexen 2," Raffel says. "We had also been in some situations where we had multiple publishers and they would sometimes do what they could to put us in a position where we were kind of strapped for cash, and we didn't want to be in that position anymore. So that was kind of our mindset in that era, and that's why it kind of worked out great that we ended up with Activision."

At the time, Activision was not the industry juggernaut that it is today. As Raffel points out, it was the industry's 15th ranked publisher in 1997, and was mostly known for PC games like Zork-strong games that also catered to something of a niche audience. Activision had published the hit MechWarrior 2 in 1995, but numerous delays prompted FASA to decide against renewing their licensing deal with the publisher. Only five years earlier, Activision had been mired in bankruptcy, which it emerged from under the stewardship of Bobby Kotick, who had purchased a stake in the company in 1990. Needless to say, they were a long from the Call of Duty and Skylanders-driven dominance they would enjoy in the latter half of the 2000s and early 2010s.

Raffel was immediately taken by Kotick and company director Brian Kelly. " When I met [Bobby Kotick] and [Brian Kelly], my brother said right away, 'These guys know what they're doing. These guys are smart.' They seemed to really get us. They were the only ones who seemed to understand that if we license technology and give it to these guys, they will do a lot of great stuff. So that was where we went with them."

Raven subsequently signed an exclusive publishing deal with Activision, and subsequently became a wholly owned subsidiary. In response, a handful of developers including programmer Ben Gokey, who had been a part of Raven since the Black Crypt days, opted to break away and form Human Head Studios. The split was spurred in large part by a fear that Activision's corporate culture would subsume the loose, familial culture fostered at Raven. " I think they thought we were selling out to the man. But we saw it as a strategic step toward what we ultimately got into the business for, which was to work on games." Raffel says. "We saw it as a logical step to keep that dream alive."

Raffel admits the culture did change somewhat at Raven following the split, though he doesn't go into specifics. Activision was mostly happy to leave them alone, he says, allowing them to remain and pick their own projects. "There were ups and some downs, but the goods news for us was that I worked with Mitch Lasky, who was my boss over at Activision, and, of course, Brian and Bobby. Our greenlights back then were Bobby and Brian asking, 'Okay, what do you want to do?'" Raffel laughs. "But it was nice that we didn't have to worry about legal or payroll, and we had a lot of resources available to us in terms of marketing data and licenses and so forth. The downside was, yeah, we had to keep someone else happy, and we sometimes had to follow their desire over ours. But I knew that this was coming, so I wasn't worried about it, and I felt that the benefits outweighed the downsides."

As for those who decided to break away, Raffel says, it was just business. Then he goes onto articulate one of the studio's core philosophies. "One thing I did know going into the business world was that you have to adapt or die, and we've done that over the 25 years of Raven probably ten times. That's the nature of the business, its ebbs and flows, and technology, and the pace of the consumer."

Times were indeed changing for Raven. Though the shift was slow at first, it was inexorable. Now there was no denying that the studio that had begun over a handful of Dungeons & Dragons sessions was a business.

Using the Force

In that, Brian Raffel considers himself lucky. Along with his brother Steve, Raffel founded Raven in 1990, and he's been with the studio ever since, shepherding it through period in which it was a four person outfit working out of what amounts to a Madison, Wisconsin garage to a 130 person subsidiary of Activision.

"My brother and I never aspired to become millionaires," Raffel tells me at one point over the phone. "We loved working on creative projects, and that was what it was all about."

As Raffel has discovered over 25 years in the industry, however, gaming is also a business. And a cold one at that. Raven's ability to navigate those harsh realities have been part of what has kept them in business for as long as they have, though not without cost.

When Raffel remembers his time with the Star Wars license, he seems almost giddy over the phone. "[Being able to work on Star Wars] was one of those moments where everyone was so happy to be at Activision."

Not long after the release of Star Wars: Jedi Outcast in 2002, LucasArts approached Raven Software about making a pseudo-sequel, and Raffel and company jumped at the opportunity. By that time, Raven had been with Activision for around five years, and in that period they had slowly shifted toward licensed games based on movies and television shows. In 2000, they developed Star Trek: Elite Force-a first-person shooter set in the Star Trek: Voyager era that made use of the id Tech 3 engine, which had previously been used to developed Quake III Arena.

Raven Software's other project that year was Soldier of Fortune, which was developed with the assistance of the magazine of the same name and gained notoriety for featuring buckets of gore. Both were well-received by critics and fans alike, with both being praised for their comparative polish, and Elite Force being noted for its faithfulness to the license.

Star Wars was the big fish, though, Raffel says. "It was the number one license at that time. I love Star Trek, but Star Wars... One of the guys we had working on it had a Darth Vader tattoo, so when we heard that, he was almost on the ground."

The game they ultimately produced fit comfortably into the mold of what observers had come to expect from the studio: A sequel that relied on established technology-in this case the Quake III: Team Arena engine-and offered a high degree of polish. When they made Jedi Academy a year later, Raven Software also dipped back into their history as RPG developers, kicking series mainstay Kyle Katarn upstairs and instead featuring an anonymous student who could be created from the scratch.

Jedi Outcast was a plum assignment for Raven, which just went to show the high esteem in which Activision held the studio. Despite moving into familiar licensed properties, Raffel says, Raven was free to turn down projects at their leisure. "Some we capitalized on, some we didn't. They would always come to us and ask, 'How would like to work on X, Y, or Z?' And when we'd get a call about Star Wars and we'd say, 'Yes! We're on it! We'll do that!' So we just kind of took them as they came, and looked at them as opportunities. They never forced us to do anything we didn't want to do. They always knew we had to be coming from a point of passion."

In the meantime, Raven Software retained their strong relationship with id Software, who handed them the keys to Quake 4 while they wrapped up Doom 3. "There was a really good relationship with Activision and id Software at that time," Raffel remembers, "and it was just one of those conversations that came up where they were like, 'Hey, you guys are busy right now, and we know you trust Raven, so would you guys be willing to have some discussion?' And I think that was the brainchild out of Activision. They put the milk and cereal together, and it all worked out."

Raven would continue to be successful for more than a decade after its acquisition by Activision, churning out a steady stream of well-regarded spinoffs and licensed games that never quite broke out in their own right, but nevertheless did quite well. In their partnership with Bobby Kotick and Brian Kelly, the Raffel brothers had found the stability they craved, which was a blessing in the uncertain games industry.

Tough times were still to come, though. And though they had a degree of cover under Activision's umbrella, they would eventually have to adapt again to survive.

Duty Calls

At some point in the late 2000s, Raven Software and id Software drifted apart, which was exacerbated by Zenimax Software buying id in 2009. That year, Raven worked on one last id Software franchise-Wolfenstein. Utilizing a souped up version of the Doom 3 engine, it was technically impressive, cramming in Havok physics and numerous other bells and whistles. But after years of sustained success, the shine had come off a bit for Raven.

"With only genre basics in its bag of tricks, and hobbled at every turn by clumsy implementation, in a gaming landscape that already offers Battlefield 1943 and Call of Duty: World at War's Nazi Zombies mode, Wolfenstein's bargain basement charms are of limited appeal," Eurogamer's Dan Whitehead wrote at the time, awarding it a 6 out of 10.

Wolfenstein ultimately received decent if unimpressive reviews, with the PC version averaging a 72 on Metacritic, but it sold poorly, managing just 106,000 copies in its first month despite a strong marketing campaign by Activision. Their next game, the inventive Singularity, fared better with reviewers, but it again failed to break out in the marketplace. In response, Raven cut between 30 and 35 employees and began refocusing their efforts toward supporting Call of Duty, which by that time had become a juggernaut for Activision.

Raffel remembers it as one of the toughest times in the studio's history. "Money got tighter, people's buying habits changed, and we made a concerted effort to shift our resources toward collaborating with other studios to ensure that Call of Duty's experience was the best in the world. We reduced our headcount a bit, refocused and retooled, and it was a challenging time, but I think it ultimately made us stronger than ever, and kind of changed our philosophy. At that time, we were still a little bit family-oriented, and now we're more team-oriented. Our mantra has always been, 'Our work speaks for us,' so that we want our work to just shine, and not have to make any excuses."

Raven's new role was to provide support for whichever studio was working on Call of Duty at that moment. Though Raffel won't go into specifics, over the years they've had to "bring in some of the experience we've had from Quake 4 and other things, and also keep the spirit of Call of Duty there as well." It's harder than it seems, Raffel says. "I know there are a lot of people who have tried to replicate that experience, but we've been able to integrate relatively seamlessly into the experience."

More recently, Raven has been tasked with effectively localizing Call of Duty for China through Call of Duty Online, developing a host of new content best-suited for that audience. "The whole idea was to bring the Call of Duty experience to the Chinese market. The original idea was that it would be pretty straightforward, but what we learned was that we had to tailor more to their taste," Raffel explains. He ticks off many of the biggest differences from just the top of his head: "Their Internet is different. Their min-specs are different. Their game styles are different. That pretty much encapsulates what they're all about."

"Over there, they get the ability to see these games on the black market or whatever, so we wanted to make content that was fresh and new and not just dump the game on them. What we're doing is for the most part unique. We did a whole new single-player storyline that reuses some assets but in new ways, we've created new game modes that aren't available in the west... we have a survival mode, a new zombie mode, we have others in development... so it's almost kind of reinventing Call of Duty for that market. "

For the Raffel brothers and Raven Software, the latest transformation is complete.

It might actually be underselling things a bit to say that it's amazing that Raven Software has survived all this time, still nestled up there in Madison. Just for reference, here are just a few studios that they've managed to outlive: Acclaim, Westwood Studios, Data East, Factor 5, Eidos Interactive (also founded in 1990), and many, many others. The game developed graveyard is littered with studios that had a good run through the '90s and struggled to the changing realities of the business.

Raffel is justifiably proud of his studio's ability to adapt and survive, even as the quest for survival has taken his studio further and further away from making original games. Raven's chameleon-like ability to blend in and work on a wide variety of established franchises, from Quake to Call of Duty to Star Wars, has served them well over the years. Raffel refers to that ability as one of Raven's key strengths. "I think we've got a very diverse and very successful portfolio. Also, the ability to adapt ourselves and not get stuck on our own press, and in a certain mode to not sit on our laurels, and I think that's why we've been around for 25 years."

He's also proud to still be based in Wisconsin, not far from Human Head Studios, which has likewise managed to survive since the split. "Wisconsin is constantly in places like Money Magazine as one of the best places to live, and we get people from the West Coast who want to raise a family, own a home, and have access to the state schools, which is a big benefit for us. We've never really had a problem finding people. There are some people who love the seasons and love skiing and things like that. So I think we're one of those unique alternatives for those people who don't just want to live in Seattle or LA."

And he doesn't feel particularly isolated from the industry either. "I guess we're so connected to Activision and all of our sister studios that we're all part of one big family." He pauses, then adds somewhat tellingly, "I don't miss the competition, I guess."

For Raffel, ever the pragmatist, it's just nice to be able to enjoy a measure of security in an industry known for anything but. For nearly 25 years now, Raven has survived to make video games, many of them quite good. From the sound of it, they're ready to go 25 more.

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Comments 5

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  • Avatar for lanmao #1 lanmao 4 years ago
    This was a fantastic read! Thanks!
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #2 SatelliteOfLove 4 years ago
    Raffel remembers it as one of the toughest times in the studio's history. "Money got tighter, people's buying habits changed, and we made a concerted effort to shift our resources toward collaborating with other studios to ensure that Call of Duty's experience was the best in the world. We reduced our headcount a bit, refocused and retooled, and it was a challenging time, but I think it ultimately made us stronger than ever, and kind of changed our philosophy. At that time, we were still a little bit family-oriented, and now we're more team-oriented. Our mantra has always been, 'Our work speaks for us,' so that we want our work to just shine, and not have to make any excuses."

    It's sad that this is a "lucky" experience for the established developer during Gen 7.
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  • Avatar for nickrothe49 #3 nickrothe49 4 years ago
    I always found it awesome they are based out of my home state Wisconsin
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  • Avatar for Ralek #4 Ralek 4 years ago
    I have very fond memories of playing SoF on lan parties, esp. the Raven Soft. Office map was pretty neat - spent hours playing that with friends back in the day. Great read on a gread dev! ;P
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  • Avatar for scathingvitriol #5 scathingvitriol 4 years ago
    Fascinating article! It offers a lot of insight into the industry, but it's a little confusing at first.

    Paragraph 1: I'm assuming Raffel is the president of Raven?
    Paragraph 2: Oh, there are 2 Raffels. Then which one is speaking in paragraph 1?
    Paragraph 4: I guess it's Brian Raffel who's doing the interview, unless they're both being interviewed?
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