Cliffhanger Productions’ Michael Paeck on creating a successful game, moving on from a project and using Kickstarter

Michael Paeck began his career in the games industry as a developer, co-founding a development studio and acting as managing director and producer. In 1999, his first game, Die Volker, was one of the most successful games produced in Germany, selling over 500,000 copies. The studio was then sold to Jowood, and 9 more titles, translated into 14 languages, followed. He joined Jowood Productions AG as an Executive Producer, producing many successful titles, including the worldwide successes, Gothic and Spellforce. He is now co-founder and Managing Director of Cliffhanger Productions, an interactive entertainment company from Vienna, Austria.

Creating a Successful Game

Michael Paeck began creating games from about age twelve. He was fascinated by creating something where there had been nothing; having an idea and a couple of months later, being able to play the game.

The most important things he learned were that there was still a lot he didn’t know about game development and that if you really want something and work hard for it, you can achieve it.

His first published game, Die Volker (Amazons and Aliens in the US), was a great success, particularly in Germany. It became one of the most purchased games of 1998. Paeck sees several factors that led to the success of this game. The most important was the decision to start over when they saw that the game they had worked on was not what they wanted. They had worked for a year, but realized the game was just not one that satisfied them or that they would really want to play. So they started again, working intensely, rewriting the entire game in a different style. Other factors that he feels attracted players were the graphics style and the humor built into the game.

Paeck says that, looking back on it, the most important things he learned were that there was still a lot he didn’t know about game development and that if you really want something and work hard for it, you can achieve it. The success of the game was incredibly exciting, but Paeck says, “Afterwords I fell a little bit into a hole because I turned my teenaged dream into reality, and then I thought, ‘ok, what now?’” It took a couple of months to find his next goal, which was to build his own development studio.

Cliffhanger Productions

Paeck emphasizes that the goals he made for himself are represented at Cliffhanger.

Paeck’s current venture is Cliffhanger Productions, which he founded with Jan Wagner. He met Wagner while working at Jowood and discovered their ideas and viewpoints were compatible and their skills complemented each other. They started by doing freelance and contractual work and continued as a producing team for four years, during which they were involved in every successful RPG in Germany. They then decided to change direction to become a development studio publishing house.

Paeck emphasizes that the goals he made for himself are represented at Cliffhanger. He values the internal work procedures; the company is very process driven, so cooperation between the departments is essential. The development decisions are based on a simple principle; Paeck says, “We decided that we’d only make titles where we ourselves go, ‘oh yeah, cool; that’s a game I really want to play.’” He feels at this point they have an excellent staff that works well together and have mastered the development aspect of the business. The next goals for Cliffhanger include building up marketing departments, increasing PR, and implementing the necessary accounting as the company begins self-publishing.

Successfully Using Kickstarter

Paeck decided to use Kickstarter to finance Shadowrun Online. There are two main reasons the Kickstarter campaign was successful. First, Cliffhanger had the license for Shadowrun, and many people were already familiar with this game. Second, their community management plan made a critical difference. They answered about 4,000 messages and had a rule that every message must be answered within one hour. As a result, they ended up with 6,000 backers and showed that they were totally committed to doing whatever was necessary to make a great game.

For a Kickstarter campaign to succeed, Paeck believes it is essential to have the right product. You must aim it at the Kickstarter audience, which is a little older than the general gaming audience. You must demonstrate to this audience that you have both the skills and the passion to be able to make the product. You also need to have a community before a Kickstarter campaign can work; it is necessary to concentrate on building followers on Facebook or in forums first.

Paeck has also found advantages to collaborating with other companies using Kickstarter. In this instance, they worked with the company that owns Shadowrun Returns, who were also doing a Kickstarter campaign. Together they created the Shadowrun Universe, and are now sharing the entire community. They are beginning to collaborate on gameplay levels and are helping each other in many other ways. They now also have Shadowrun Catalyst on the Shadowrun Universe, collaborating with this third company as well.

Choosing the Right Market

The Kickstarter project met with success with the help of 6,003 backers.

When deciding what games to concentrate on, Paeck examined the market to see what was available and what was missing. He discovered that few games were being produced for adult males in their mid-twenties to late thirties and saw opportunity in this market niche. He began looking for games that would be accessible to someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to play, doesn’t have the latest hardware, and doesn’t want to spend time figuring out complicated controls.

Cliffhanger Productions began to acquire the licenses for games such as Jagged Alliance and Shadowrun. They began working to make core games more accessible and playable on any device. They also worked to avoid lengthy download time, so the game would be accessible immediately or within a few minutes. They targeted a very specific market that they saw was badly underserved, and since that was the demographic they were a part of, they knew exactly what was needed.

Cliffhanger Productions’ major goal is to be completely independent, doing both the developing and publishing. The critical factor in their future plans is the success of Shadowrun Online as a social core game. If its success meets their high expectations, they plan to proceed with an upcoming project, again using Kickstarter.

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