Good news, Microsoft! Minecraft is still popular. And that means its big minigame servers are still popular, too. Places like Mineplex, Hypixel and GuildCraft, where rather than the standard survival or creative Minecraft, you play heavily modded multiplayer games. To many Minecraft players, the servers and the games they play on them, from Survival Games to SkyBlock, are Minecraft. Mineplex, at the time I’m writing this on a Friday lunchtime in the UK, has 12,022 players online. That would put it among the top 20 games being played on Steam. Hypixel has 16,449 players online right now.
They’re huge, and Duncan wrote a great intro to the server scene last year, but despite their size, I didn’t really know how they work or what makes them tick. So I chatted to a couple of their creators to find out, and I encountered a surprising world that’s undergoing big change, facing big challenges, and holding big potential.
Visit Hypixel by simply punching its server address, mc.hypixel.net, into your vanilla copy of Minecraft, and its lobby is the usual chaos of players setting off particle effects and transforming into mobs. Minecraft’s inventory UI is still bent into presenting options for your account and its 35 minigames. But operations manager Aaron ‘Noxy’ Donaghey tells me that today it’s a very different server to what it was in the past. It attracts 1.9 million players a month and a total of 6.9 million unique players have logged in since it started in early 2013. The majority of them are between 13 and 16 years old. Behind the scenes, Hypixel now has a core team of 26 programmers, world-builders and admins, supported by 100 volunteer support staff.
It’s a full, legit operation, the kind that had a big presence at Minecon this year, holding onstage tournaments and community meetups. But, along with the rest of the Minecraft community, it’s weathered a pretty tumultuous past 12 months, with Mojang beginning to enforce its EULA, which includes regulations for the way server owners can run the game, and the Microsoft purchase. And always hanging over it all is the big question: will Minecraft ever stop being popular?
These Minecraft servers remind me of the 1980s computer games scene, when kids like the Oliver brothers taught themselves to program and made massive hits like Dizzy in a matter of weeks. Minecraft minigames are often similarly wild and messy, built by self-taught modders fiddling around. But they’re also inflected by a very modern sensibility – of instant access and YouTube.
Take MCGamer, which was one of the first big minigame servers, having accidentally popularised Survival Games. This mainstay is based on The Hunger Games: 24 players roam a large map, gradually picking each other off until one winner remains. In early 2012 a guy called Chad Dunbar saw YouTubers struggling to make slick videos of the game; back then, matches had to be managed by a server admin who’d place players on the start podiums, restart the server between rounds and reload the map to all. “I asked well, what if we automate all this and make it into a system where you can have Survival Games on demand?” So he hired a programmer, made a rough alpha for BebopVox to show off in April 2012, “and people went insane over it”.
YouTube is how the servers get players. When big channels cover a minigame, players flock to play; half of Hypixel’s players learned about the server through YouTube. “When we create a game we create a content piece for YouTubers like DanTDM,” Noxy tells me. “We have a great relationship with him, so when we make new content we give Dan a little message. There’s no obligation, and he comes along and we treat him like press. The press doesn’t exist in this subculture.” Some servers pay YouTubers for coverage – and there are bidding wars for the most popular to play on their networks, usually entirely undisclosed – but neither MCGamer nor Hypixel do.
Now Dunbar’s 25 and spends half his time on MCGamer and the other on his own IT business. Survival Games is still MCGamer’s biggest game, taking 60-80% of its over 50,000 players a day. But despite 3.5 million players over the years (which represent nearly 20% of Minecraft 20.7 million total sales on PC) he never found another hit like it. “We’ve lost a lot of players over the years. If we don’t change the game it’s hard to get players, but at same time there’s a lot of people wanting to keep it as authentic as we can,” he told me, illustrating the quandary that having a hit can present. “In 2012, 2013 I thought Survival Games was going to be a fad and go away, which was why we had to drive to find different games, because we obviously wanted to keep the community going.” The search continues.
Hypixel is notable for releasing new successful games over the past year. The server was established in 2013 by Hypixel, a guy called Simon who lives in Quebec and got known for his hugely popular adventure maps, like Herobrine’s Mansion. In May Hypixel launched Turbo Kart Racers, which is Mario Kart in Minecraft and similar to Mineplex’s Minekart, but rather than have you ride a mob, you drive a kart. It works by sitting you on a bat and then mounting a block to the bat’s head. That block is styled, using a resource pack, as a go-kart. “We find that we can break Minecraft in a way that makes things possible,” Noxy tells me, explaining their process is based on ‘technology unlocks’, R&D projects that are about finding exploits.
At the same time, these hacks can be broken by updates to Minecraft. “We have good relations with Mojang, but they’re not answerable to us,” says Noxy. “We’re basically along for the ride. They let us know when they can, but Hypixel isn’t special, and that’s fine.” So his team tries to keep ahead of what’s coming, and be open to the idea that things change. These changes can also be positive. “Most of the time when they add features to Minecraft, it gives more chance to do crazy stuff.”
It’s not all hacking, though. With a background in indie dev at Dark Water Games (Dogfighter) and Black Market Games (Dead Hungry Diner), Noxy’s been keen to introduce mainstream dev principles to its 18 and 19 year-old Minecraft modders and world builders, such as using light to guide the eye in The Blocking Dead, Valve-style. “We’re all about trying to level up.” It also just launched a beta for a feature where players can make their own houses, which required completely rewriting the server code to allow over 500 players to be in a single game instance.
Hypixel’s team doesn’t have roles, in a company structure based on Valve. “I know that sounds very pretentious and lofty, you know, a Minecraft mod community trying to mimic Valve, but there’s a lot that fits,” says Noxy. The team is distributed around the world, there are no fixed working hours, and projects depend on their leader, who has to attract others to work with them. Noxy’s role is then to “point chaos in the right direction”.
As an example of the fluidity that results, Hypixel’s latest hit, Build Battle, which launched in April, originated from ad-hoc community play and internal team-build face-offs among its world building team. 12 players are given a theme and five minutes to build it, with viewers rating the results. It’s Hot or Not meets Take Hart’s gallery, and it’s also an example of how the Minecraft server scene is rife with copying, often called for by their communities. So Mineplex, Hypixel’s biggest competitor, has Master Builders, which appeared a few weeks after Build Battle.
“It seems lately, within the last year, originality has been lost in some cases,” says MCGamer’s Dunbar. “If one network makes a new game, another network copies it.” Naturally, versions of Survival Games exist on every server, each with slightly different rules – some feature player classes, some allow teams, some emphasise the survival aspect and crafting.
Minecraft is still a Wild West, then, like the computer games of the 1980s. But it was substantially tamed in early June last year when Mojang started to require that server owners obeyed its EULA, which stated that only Mojang could make money from the game. Until this point, servers used various money-making techniques, some pay-to-win or pay-to-play, and some pretty exploitative, especially given that many players are very young. “There are some people in the community that have paid ridiculous amounts of money for items in the game,” says Dunbar, who never added pay-to-win or play elements to MCGamer.
Chaos descended, as server owners were rightly concerned that they wouldn’t be able to keep their services going, until Mojang made a specific exception for them a few days later, albeit with a few important provisos. Servers can now legitimately charge for access, as long as there’s only one fee for all and no tiered accounts or divisions between paid and free players. They can take donations, and show in-game ads, and they can sell in-game items, as long as they’re only cosmetic. Nothing can affect gameplay.
It was a major incident for a community that until that point was almost completely unregulated. Income crashed to levels below what was sustainable. It was looking like an extinction event. It’s easy to demonise the server owners for the ways they made money, but their very success exerts great financial pressure. MCGamer can cost “well into the five-figure marks” per month; Hypixel costs nearly $100,000 a month across salaries, hardware, bandwidth, DDoS protection. “Players are young and don’t understand that it really costs to run networks above 1000 concurrent players,” says Dunbar. When he started MCGamer, he didn’t have other commercial examples that showed what worked. “I made plenty of mistakes, but I learned quite a bit. The server bills started adding up, and people were randomly sending me money as thank yous, but it got to the point that we had to add ranks to pay for the costs.”
But now the dust has settled, Hypixel’s Noxy feels it has been positive for the scene. “We had to change a lot of stuff to comply with the regulations, but before that, everything we were doing was by grace. Mojang’s EULA enforcement meant there were proper rules that support a professionalised industry, people with jobs, careers. For Mojang to go around and say, ‘Hey, it’s OK that you guys exist now as long as you follow these rules,’ it allowed us to sleep at night.”
The space to monetise has constricted, but every other server is operating under the same conditions, and Hypixel has introduced new features like Mystery Boxes and Delivery Man that have helped it recover. Now its income is higher than before the EULA struck. Hypixel sells ranks at between £16.25 and £97.55, which unlock various lobby abilities and account features. You can buy visual customisation options for things like karts, which cost up to 4700 credits, which comes to £12.25 before bulk credit discounts. Hour-long boosters for earning in-game coins are available for between £6.49 and £22.75, depending on the game. This sounds expensive, but it applies to everyone on the server and they see your name as the benefactor. And you can buy random bundles of items in Mystery Boxes at between £3.24 and £11.69 each. The more you pay, the more rare items you’ll get. They look like large numbers, but it’s pretty typical free-to-play stuff: they aren’t particularly rubbed in your face and aren’t required for anything, and you can earn a lot through play.
Polished, productive, popular and far more ethical than before, Minecraft’s servers are in a strong position. But you have to wonder if their reliance on Minecraft makes them vulnerable, especially with Microsoft’s purchase of Mojang, the long-term effects of which still haven’t become clear. For Noxy, the first time Microsoft directly invoked itself was at Minecon this year. “I spoke to a few people, who were positive. As long we reflect their values, they’re cool. But you never know what happens in the future, but we think it’ll be pretty positive.”
The EULA, which has granted what amounts to a professional relationship between Mojang and server owners, also helps him feel more secure. But still. “With staff, you have to think, eventually Minecraft will disappear,” Noxy continues. “Could be three years, could be four years, could be five. So the aspiration is now that we want to become a games studio. So we’re working on our own game in private.” He won’t tell me what that is, but it started development in December.
Not all servers have this level of ambition. “The thought has popped up, but starting your own game is huge undertaking and you’re going to need to put a lot of own investment into something like that,” says Dunbar. “We have longterm projects but we’ll stick with Minecraft as long as it’s still popular.” Though he’s seen other servers start similar endeavours, he’s not yet seen them finish. “So I can’t say it works.”
But it does feel like the next logical step for those who dare, or have the resources. And those who don’t prepare for Minecraft’s eventual decline or Microsoft changing the terms… Like the Commodore 64 and Spectrum programmers who didn’t leap to 16bit in time, could they become extinct? Certainly, what they’re learning and achieving on Minecraft’s coalface is giving them huge potential: a new generation of game makers, ready to build even bigger.