By Jason "loonyboi" Bergman
nside Raven Software, a number of people are huddled around the cubicle of Dan Kramer, one of their intrepid programmers. We’re about to be shown the latest feature from Soldier of Fortune, one of two games currently being worked on at Raven, and the company’s eleventh full game since their inception in 1988.
"Check this out," he says, and everyone leans toward the computer in anticipation, "you’re going to love this."
He spawns a new character on the screen, and raises his ultra-realistic looking pistol. He fires, making the character drop to his knees, and then to the ground. A pool of blood forms around the body, slowly oozing out. The body jerks slightly, and then comes to a cold death. I comment on the realism, to which he replies, "That’s nothing. Watch this."
As several others and I look on, he raises his pistol to the now-dead body, and begins to fire. As each bullet hits its mark, the corpse twitches with grim realism. It’s more than a little disturbing, and the crowd eats it up. This is yet another example of the sort of small detail that Raven consistently puts into their games. From the blowing leaves in Hexen to the map that shows up between levels in Heretic II, Raven has mastered the art of the detail.
Raven Software has been making games that are full of depth, immaculate detail, and more than perhaps any other game company, original artwork, for over a decade. The company was founded by artists, and this has had a profound impact on the way their games are developed. Take Heretic II as a recent example. Raven’s most recent title, a third-person action game, had a whopping seven conceptual artists. Compare that to the two concept artists on Tomb Raider 3 or the one credited on LucasArts’ Grim Fandango and you start to see the unparalleled attention to detail Raven puts into its games.
Given their attention to detail, it should come as no surprise that their first game was a role-playing game (RPG). RPGs are typically the most complex and developed games, and Raven’s background in role-playing set the tone for virtually all of their games.
"In 1988 my brother and I decided to start working on our first game," Brian Raffel, co-founder of Raven, and current Big Cheese explained. "We were Dungeons and Dragons and role-playing fans, so we had this concept to start a role-playing game." But Brian and his brother Steve were both artists, not programmers, so they found themselves needing a little help. "We were friends with this guy who had a computer shop, and he put us in contact with a couple of programmers, Ben Gokey, and Rick Johnson."
It turns out that their meeting was one of those rare strokes of pure luck. Rick Johnson (who’s still with the company, working on Soldier of Fortune) and Ben Gokey, (now at Human Head Studios) both made quite a trek to get to that software store. Rick explained, "[Ben] and I went to the same high school, and we both had Amiga computers. We were both programmers and hackers. Because the Amiga was rare, not that common in the U.S., the closest software store was about thirty minutes away. So we went there, and we got to know the owner pretty well. And he knew these two artists who were trying to put together a game but didn’t have any programmers."
But while Ben hopped on the project as soon as he could, Rick was tied up in other commitments. "I was going to college [and] Ben had more time, so he got involved with them. He started working on it…a month later, he realized it was too much work for just one person, and he asked me to help. We worked on it in our spare time for a year, and put together a demo."
That demo was the genesis of Black Crypt, Raven Software’s first game, and their only release for the Amiga. With only four people working on the game, naturally everyone did more than one job, according to Brian Raffel. "My brother and I did all the artwork, and the sound effects, and all the levels. So we were kind of jack-of-all-trades. Rick did the editor, our C code, and monster AI and Ben did our assembly language."
After a time, the demo was complete, and ready to show to publishers. "We felt it was pretty good; it was similar to the Eye of the Beholder or Dungeon Master series. We got the demo done, and we sent it out to ten publishers…we figured what the heck…we talked to them ahead of time, and they were all saying, ‘We get a thousand submissions a month. Maybe we’ll get back to you in three months or something.’ So we sent it out, and in three days, we had six contract offers." Pretty impressive for four guys with no professional work to speak of. The fledgling developers decided to go with Electronic Arts, who agreed to produce the full game.
And so the small bunch of guys who were now known as Raven Software continued work on Black Crypt for the next ten months, finally finishing their first game in January of 1992. The game was originally supposed to go on sale on March 20, 1992, but in a major goof on EA’s part, the game was actually freely available for download for about six weeks before that. Undaunted, the game did ship, and sold surprisingly well for an Amiga game, breaking 30,000 copies. There were plans to port the game, but they never actually materialized. According to Raffel, "there was a PC version and a Sega Genesis version planned, both got killed. One because the developer couldn’t get it ported properly to the PC and the other because they had another RPG title out on the Genesis that didn’t do well. You know, typical business stuff."
Credits: Illustration © 1999 Rowan Crawford. This article is © 1999 Jason Bergman. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't try it...or we'll peck your eyes out.