Raven Software head says business the ‘biggest game’ to master

As kids growing up in the 1970s, Brian Raffel and his brother Steve loved to create their own games to entertain themselves.

Fast forward a dozen or so years, when the pair – Brian a Middleton High School art teacher and Steve a silk screen printer – decided to create their own computer game.

The rest, as they say, is history. Their nearly 23-year-old company, Raven Software, found success with shooters and role-playing games such as Black Crypt, Hexen and Heretic. Raven was acquired in 1997 by Activision and Brian Raffel became the studio head.

Since then, through ups and downs in the industry, the Middleton-based studio has worked on numerous other successful titles, including “Soldier of Fortune,” “Star Wars Jedi Knight 2,” X-Men Legends,” “Marvel Ultimate Alliance,” “Call of Duty,” “Black Ops” and “Modern Warfare 3” – the most popular game ever made with billion-dollar sales.

“I started out with Dungeons and Dragons,” Raffel told an Icons in Business breakfast gathering at the Concourse Hotel in downtown Madison. “And to be honest, my mother was worried about me drawing skulls all the time.”

In the late 1980s, Raffel and his brother taught themselves computer programming and coupled it with their art skills, with results that Raffel said were as good or better than anything in the game market at the time.

When they shipped their first “demo” game off to publishers in Los Angeles, it was quickly snapped up.

But Raffel said he soon learned that running a company — including hiring, firing and managing employees — was the “biggest game of all.”

“We had no business background at all,” said Raffel, who mused that he was unprepared to deal with “shady” producers and at least one associate who nearly led the young company into bankruptcy.

He said he also was dismayed that some government rules seemed to be aimed at stopping his studio from succeeding, rather than helping it grow.

“That was an eye-opener,” he said.

“So it wasn’t all sugar and sunshine those first seven years,” he explained.

Raffel said he was lucky to have the aid of a business lawyer who served as his mentor when the company was starting out.

When Activision bought Raven, Raffel said he had to make the jump from running a small, privately held studio to being part of a corporation.

It took some adjusting. Not long after Raven was acquired, he began to focus more on running the business.

“I was sad to leave the art behind,” said Raffel, who hired an executive coach to help him succeed as a boss.

Over the years, Raffel said his company has adopted the mantra of “move or die” because the game industry is evolving so rapidly.

The recession also has taken its toll on the industry, with Raven cutting its staff from 190 to 130 as a result of the recession and changes in the game world.

“The landscape has changed … and we’ve seen the worst of it,” he said. “Four years ago, we couldn’t do enough games. But when the economy fell apart in 2008, the industry dried up.”

Now, he said, companies that aren’t involved with blockbuster games like Call of Duty are struggling. He said Raven is fortunate to have been part of Activision, a corporation with “no debt and billions in the bank.”

Raffel said he’s sees great potential for growth Asian countries such as Korea, where electronic games are a passion, and China, where 300 million people play games on their computers, iPads, phones and other electronic devices.

“That’s the low-hanging fruit,” he said. “But we also have to continue to be creative to survive.”

The event was sponsored by InBusiness Magazine.

— By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

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