If you've been near a television or computer screen in the last month, if you're the parent of a male teenager, or if you're prone to clutching a game controller, you've probably been assaulted by ads for Call of Duty: Ghosts, the 10th and latest installment in one of the world's most popular military shooter games. It hits Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on Nov. 5, and its ascent to stardom is linked to the Madison area.
The opening credits for Ghosts contain something that's never appeared in a Call of Duty game: the logo for Middleton-based Raven Software. Along with California-based studios Infinity Ward and Neversoft, Raven is developing the game. After nearly a quarter-century of making solid computer and console games in relative obscurity, and after years of doing low-profile level work on expansion packs for Call of Duty's Modern Warfare 3 and Black Ops, the company is finally getting its turn in the national spotlight. This translates to a reputation boost for both the company and our state.
It's hard to ignore a pop-culture phenomenon as big as a Call of Duty release. For Ghosts, there were cute commercials where average folks acted out scenes from their play sessions in restaurants. There was the explosion-heavy trailer, thumping to the beat of Eminem's new single, "Survival." Then came the breathless reveal that you get to shoot aliens instead of zombies in one of the new gameplay modes.
In other words, expectations are high. Some experts predict that Ghosts will rack up even better sales figures than Grand Theft Auto V, which has sold upwards of 29 million copies since its release in September.
"We knew it would come," says Raven's studio head, Brian Raffel, 53. He's camped in his office, near a door adorned with plaques from the 28 games Raven has produced or contributed to. "We just had to keep doing good work."
A developer's paradise
The doors to Raven's studios, just up the road from Middleton's Greenway Station mall, are locked during business hours. That's to fend off unwelcome and threatening visits from those who think first-person shooter games are the root of all social evil. Inside, the space is something of a developer's paradise, with all of the perks but little of the rampant excess that sunk Titanics like Ion Storm in the 1990s.
Already the only Midwestern game developer with its own motion-capture studio, Raven just got its own theater. Comfortable, black-leather recliners let employees test-drive the latest games and refuel their creativity tanks with movies. The break room features multiple soda fountains and an ATM machine, plus refrigerators packed with snacks. Several floor-to-ceiling murals depict environments from some of the levels Raven designed for Call of Duty: Black Ops.
But, in an unexpected turn, Ghosts isn't a sequel. Instead of following the scripts laid out by Modern Warfare and Black Ops, Ghosts wipes the slate clean. For the first time in the series, players will step into the shoes of the underdog. In the wake of an attack from space, a crippled United States has to fend off an attack by a South American group called the Federation.
Raffel and Derek Racca, the producer leading Raven's Ghosts team, won't divulge exactly which pieces of the game their company is responsible for. Let's just say you can smell the team spirit coming from Activision, Ghosts' publisher and one of the gaming world's most successful franchises. But Raffel and Racca are happy to talk about the parts of the game that excite them the most.
For Raffel, it's the opportunity to create an interesting set of characters for the game's ever-developing Ghost Squad. Racca's psyched about the major changes to the game's multiplayer mode, including the ability to destroy sections of certain levels and level up an entire squad the way you would a single character.
Even though it's no longer uncommon for games to be developed by more than one studio, working together isn't as easy as reloading your weapon in the game. Development on Ghosts was complicated by a host of issues, both logistical and technical.
"For one thing, they're in L.A., and they're two hours behind us," Raffel says of the other two studios.
"And they always forget," Racca chimes in.
"Let's just say our lunches are usually on the phone, because that's 10 a.m. for them," Raffel says.
A Midwestern mentality
The technical part of the development process was a big deal. Ghosts will premiere on the cusp of a major console transition. With the new PlayStation 4 and Xbox One coming out within a week of each other (Nov. 15 and Nov. 22, respectively), the team had to develop Ghosts for both current and next-generation consoles. In total, the game will appear on six major platforms. Both Racca and Raffel say working with Infinty Ward and Neversoft became like a friendly sibling rivalry, with each studio pushing the other to raise its, um, game.
"Raven is a studio that has been built on working from Wisconsin with other teams," Racca says.
Raven's actually handled a mission just like this one before. Working with Dallas-based id Software, they helped port Quake 4, another first-person shooter, from PC to gaming consoles back in 2005. With Ghosts, they know they have several armies' worth of fan expectations to manage and meet.
"When you have 30 million-plus fans out there, it's hard not to make a step up without upsetting someone," Raffel says. "We can't even change a flavor of soda in our break room without offending someone. It's just like any franchise: You try to keep it fresh. You're hoping the instincts that got you there are the same things that keep it going."
It's a motto that describes Raffel's studio as well. In 1997, Raven was the first studio acquired by Activision. At the time, the Santa Monica-based company was the 15th-largest publisher in the videogame industry. Today it's the top dog, buoyed by powerhouse franchises like Call of Duty, Skylanders and Diablo. Activision acquired a lot of studios on the way to the mountaintop, and not all of them are still around. Raffel's got a theory on why he and his employees have held on to their jobs, and it starts with what he calls a humble Midwestern mentality.
"A lot of guys, they'll let a successful title go to their head, and they think they have the secret sauce forever," he says. "They don't ever want to look in the mirror and say, 'Well, maybe we've got to change things.' We're not going to drink our own Kool-Aid. My ultimate motto is move or die."
Looking to the future
With this forward-looking mindset, Raven is no stranger to change. Back in 1992, the year Raffel and his older brother, Steve, decided to turn their dream of making games into a business, they were working on Black Crypt, a project designed on the Commodore Amiga. After years of developing games for the PC, Raven jumped to consoles. For more than a decade after being acquired by Activision, Raven worked on licensed games, developing in what now feels like an ubergeek's nirvana: Star Trek (2000's Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force), Star Wars (2002's Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast) and Marvel (X-Men Legends, Marvel Ultimate Alliance and Wolverine Origins). This was mostly in the days before Iron Man and the Avengers dominated the box office, turning Marvel's superheroes into a super-powered cash cow.
"We've been [Activision's] good soldier, but it's always been stuff we've been engaged in," Raffel says. "I took it as a great opportunity. A lot of people slammed licensed work, but when you grew up loving these things, it's a dream come true."
Of course, the journey to success hasn't always been easy. Raven tasted notoriety with their original work on games like the gory shooter Soldier of Fortune. The company's original Singularity, a clever first-person shooter featuring a time-manipulation element, came and went without much notice in 2010. Raven experienced huge growth in the mid-2000s, with three full teams of developers working on games at once. It has also experienced sizable layoffs, both in 2009 and 2011.
But now that Raven's hitched its wagon to Activision and Call of Duty, things are looking up. A parade of downloadable content and an all-but-inevitable sequel to Ghosts will likely keep Raffel and his staff busy for years to come. They'll also be involved in Call of Duty: China, the series' first foray into the massively multiplayer online world.
Raffel says it'll be at least another decade before he hangs up his development hat.
"I got into this industry not to be famous and not to be rich, but because I love to work with creative people on creative things," he says. "And I look forward to coming to work every day and saying, 'Oh my God, we're working on Star Wars! We're working on Call of Duty!' It all comes to you. You just have to be patient."