The Future Of Minecraft’s Biggest Servers

Hypixel’s hub speaks to its sophisticated approach to getting players committed, displaying stats and giving lots of ways of showing off both real and virtual money spending.

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.

On each server, the inventory hotbar is used as a menu – select the option access it with a right click, which usually brings up an inventory screen. Item icons then point to further options.

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?

As they go, MCGamer’s hub world is reasonably simple, but it still features an economy and many aesthetic items and pets to buy.

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.

Mineplex’s hub is large, and features side challenges like this parkour course.

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.

The worlds in which games are played are often amazing, like this one for Wizards on Mineplex. Servers usually have teams of builders, who effectively act as level designers and artists.

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”.

Pixel Painters, which is Build Battle but for pixel drawings, is a recent addition to Hypixel. Admins have access to a tool called Dongdar, which automatically sends drawings of penises to a mesmerising Slack channel that someone’s constantly watching to ban and remove.

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.

MCGamer’s Survival Games’s maps are huge; when you die you can spectate and appreciate their full extent. To keep matches from going on too long, the last three surviving players are teleported to a final deathmatch.

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.”

The beginning of an MCGames Survival Games match. Each player will run to the centre to grab items from the boxes before dispersing.

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.

Hypixel’s Turbo Kart Racers isn’t quite as immediate as Mario Kart, but it’s surprisingly playable. As you play you get new kart components, which improve its stats.

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.

Custom helmets and karts are enabled by resource packs, which are automatically downloaded from the server as needed.

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.

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34 Comments

  1. Heavenfall says:

    Wow, 16000 people on one server. I had no idea this even existed.

    • SomeDuder says:

      What genuinly baffles me is that people are willing to spend 97 britbucks for a “rank” in a mod made by some guy running on a random server with no guarantuees, for what originally was a freeware game about low-tech crafting running on Flash.

      I’m sure that most of them are kids (or at least have the mind of a child) but this is still one of those games that will make absolutely no sense at all to someone who has never heard of Minecraft and its evolution

      • aerozol says:

        It’s interesting that we feel the need to construct an internal logic as to what digital (eg “fake”) ranks are worth buying, and what aren’t.

      • Phasma Felis says:

        Please name one way in which this less reasonable than paying for a hat in a AAA game.

        Also, Minecraft was never freeware and it was never in Flash. Pull yourself together, man.

        • whbboyd says:

          You can still play Classic for free. And while it’s not Flash, it is a Java applet.

          I’m not going to try to defend hats versus ranks or whatever, though. I wouldn’t buy either, but I got over judging people for what they do with their spending money a long time ago.

          • Phasma Felis says:

            Aww, I thought jackhole up there was gonna mention Classic, and then I could totally lay into him. Now I have to be polite.

            Lots of games have free demos. That doesn’t make the game freeware, it just makes it a paid game with a demo.

            Until the very recent announcement of (ugh) Minecraft Windows 10 Edition, the desktop versions of Minecraft have always been in Java. Java isn’t Flash, though.

            In conclusion, that dude up there is still a jackhole.

          • Ashrand says:

            Felis did you really think minecraft was always a paid thing?

            All the pre-alpha releases were free-of-charge, as much as I’m aware it now dates me in a community full of kids i still remember the early versions and the community Q&As (even on 4chan, bet notch doesn’t wanna think about those >.>).
            To the idea of a free demo though, notch always said that he might charge “if it got popular” and then open-source it later. While that clearly not gonna happen anymore, the point above is clearly made to point out that even NOTCH didn’t think there was money in it at first, so it’s still kind of weird that groups are making a living off it.

          • Phasma Felis says:

            Son, I played a version so early it didn’t have mobs, inventory, or crafting. :D My point is–and I realize this may be quibbling–free pre-alpha engine tests don’t mean that a game “originally was a freeware game.” Remember Quake and Qtest?

            Keep in mind I was specifically replaying to jackhole up there, who was trying to imply that Minecraft was just a free browser game with that got delusions of grandeur. AFAIK, every version of Minecraft that could reasonably be called a game as opposed to a tech demo had a paid version available.

          • Ashrand says:

            But the point i was trying to make is that is WAS a browser game with delusions of grandeur, if you remember the versions of olde you have to remember how resistant notch was to the features that ultimately made it a success (remember the poll that said that 92% of players wanted infinite maps after he said that “almost the whole community would have to be calling for it before i would take time away from what i want to be working on”?).

            There is a kind of mythology that’s grown out of minecraft being intuited, fully formed, as this great success by notch from minute one when the reality is it was a throwaway tigsource project for him to work on while he was doing something boring at king.com and that the community has always been what made it work and pushed for a more interesting type of game.

            So yeah from humble beginnings it IS really really strange that people can run a server as a business, but not as surprising to me as the number of people who credit notch as a kind of visionary genius (he’s a great coder but not a great designer, something he was happy to cop to in the past)

      • xdxd says:

        There’s a sale on 95 percent of the time.Makes you wonder if it’s all a scam for the ‘pixel kiddies…

    • Clavus says:

      Usually these aren’t single server instances, but rather a network of servers that have portals that make you automatically connect to the right place.

    • PseudoKnight says:

      You can have hundreds on a single server if you set it up for that, but not thousands. In this instance they’re using the MC protocol to send a total player count across all their servers. They technically could even be faking those numbers, but that’s unlikely with the servers mentioned above. There’s methods to transfer between networked servers without disconnecting, so for the user it feels like all the same server. Depending on the mode, sometimes servers are even instanced, so it creates a new one every time a game is started.

  2. Distec says:

    Every time I’ve tried to play Minecraft multiplayer I end up in a “popular” server full of confusing rules and oceans of colored text detailing complex commands to do something as simple as scoop up a cube of dirt. I feel like I’m not doing it right, but I can’t be assed to wade through it all. So I guess it’s just couch coop on the Xbone for now.

    • PseudoKnight says:

      Heh. Ya, that can be a problem. It’s why I made my rules as short as possible, avoid any extra or busy UI elements when I can, and implement functionality using gameplay instead of commands whenever possible. But there are many MANY servers that are even simpler than mine. The trouble is finding them. I don’t even list mine on those gross server lists, where servers often pay their users in virtual currency to vote for them. The worst players always come from those.

  3. Infinitron says:

    This rather reminds me of the BBS door game culture from the 1990s.

  4. Initialised says:

    My sons play on Mineplex, Survival Games and Skywars and are gradually converting their friends over from consoles to The One True Gaming Platform. Now their friends don’t want XBoxes and PSs for christmas, they want gaming PCs, graphics cards SSDs and faster CPUs

    Think of Minecraft on consoles as a gateway drug…

  5. sebagul says:

    In soviet Russia, Big Brother spies on you.

    In Creepy Microsoft, Minecraft spies on you.

  6. Solrax says:

    Interesting article, thanks!

    • alms says:

      Yup, actually it’d be nice if you guys could squeeze in some more Minecraft coverage, looks there’s a lot happening I really have no clue about.

      • brucethemoose says:

        Are you sure? The world of modded Minecraft is a deep, deep rabbit hole :P

      • Josh W says:

        Yess, minecraft on RPS returns!

      • TheAngriestHobo says:

        Agreed. It’d also be nice if RPS could try to scale back its aversion to Minecraftbuts. There’s certainly a lot of godawful games in the genre, but there are also quite a few interesting innovations on the genre. I really do find it a shame that Starmade doesn’t get more coverage, for instance. I’ve gotten so many memorable moments out of that game; it doesn’t deserve to be passed over just because it’s not Minecraft.

        • TheAngriestHobo says:

          Just realized I used “genre” twice in the same sentence. I know it’s unconscionable. All I can say is that it was an honest mistake.

          At least I’ll serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of not proofreading before you post.

  7. geldonyetich says:

    It’s fairly inevitable that Mine craft go the route of the MUD, what with its widespread proliferation and multiplayer capabilities.

    Macrocosms such as this tend to take on a life of their own, far beyond the original intent of the people who first host it. I’ve little doubt there are some grandiose plans beibg crushed under cliques, many of which sling their donation balances as a bludgeon against anyone who looks at them sideways.

    Blech. Leave it to going massively multiplayer for Minecraft to remind me that Hell is other people. I’d rather play single player, or maybe on a private server with a few friends.

  8. Pantalaimon says:

    I’m leery of game servers being run as businesses but I’m happy that the big Minecraft enterprises seem to have cleaned up their model and got in line with the EULA.

    Although that said hypothetically I don’t think I would be comfortable if my children were spending their weekly pocket money on Minecraft. It’s such a great game without the need to spend anything on it, and I feel like pouring in money via micro transactions is basically shortcutting a lot of the creativity (ie, fun) that the game has to offer via the dozens of amazing mods. Or, you know, learning how to mod and package/re-package mods. I have students of mine of high school age who have learnt to code (and run their own complex servers) purely through playing Minecraft. I don’t think that they would have if they could just pay £5 and have someone else do all the work for them.

    On top of that, the best servers I’ve played on were free and open servers run by admins who did it because they had a passion for what they were doing rather than because they wanted to make money out of it. Yeah they attracted hundreds rather than thousands of users, but they also presented some of the most vast and creative worlds online, without any barrier to entry to new users.

    • asd12345 says:

      It always starts with passion. There are more profitable enterprises than Minecraft if you’re working out of greed. But if you want to fully express your passion, if you want to spend your whole time doing it, you need to monetize your work.

  9. brucethemoose says:

    So wait, do these massive servers load custom jarmods now?

    Last time I played vanilla MC, mega servers relied on Bukkit/Spigot and the hundreds of plugins for them. But thanks to some dope, Bukkit is dead and illegal now… And AFAIK the successor (Sponge/Glowstone) is not up to par yet. So they’re either quietly using a shadow Bukkit derivative (which is what small servers do), or they have some weird custom mod.

    Also, I don’t really like calling those servers “modded”. When I think of modded MC, I think of Forge and all the server+clientside mods that alter the whole game. But these mega servers all work with vanilla MC clients, so the “modding” is pretty limited.

    • PseudoKnight says:

      It’s still Spigot. They got around the legal issues and released 1.8 in late November.

      While the community doesn’t often call these servers “modded”, that’s what they are. It’s just server-side only, plus resource packs.

  10. d32 says:

    …and Microsoft thinks Minecraft would be OK without mod support? (since it is impossible to do the mod api in c++, you know)

  11. Squishydew says:

    Very little there for me, most of the servers are US based so laggy or unresponsive to anyone in europe, there are exceptions but even there the minigames are mostly poor versions of things that have been done better elsewhere, It’s a minecraft mod after all.

    Not to mention I’m not a very good gamer and tons of these things are competitive in nature, wish there was more PvE / co op stuff.

  12. Alfius says:

    “To many Minecraft players, the servers and the games they play on them, from Survival Games to SkyBlock, are Minecraft”

    Nonsense, 2b2t is Minecraft.

  13. Timbrelaine says:

    Surprised the article didn’t discuss the new ‘Windows 10’ edition of minecraft, which seems like the biggest existential threat to the modding scene and the servers that relies on it.

    • d32 says:

      I don’t think that version will ever get off the ground, especially without the mod support. As far as I know, the community plays modded Minecraft exclusively.

  14. TeeJay says:

    Obligatory post mentioning…

    1. The uRPS server (vanilla 1.7.2) has been running since Sep. 2010. All welcome, info here:
    link to rockpapershotgun.com

    2. My new thread in the RPS forum for discussing modded minecraft with a view to possibly getting a modded server going:
    link to rockpapershotgun.com