VA Interview – Sean McCafferty – Hypixel Studios (Riot Games)
When you think of some of the most financially successful and culturally impactful games in recent history, only a handful spring to mind. Within that pile, we wager that Minecraft would be one of the first titles mentioned. Very few developers can say they have created a concept with as much depth, scope, and replayability as Mojang’s breakout classic. So when we look at Hypixel Studio’s upcoming game Hytale, this project’s ambition and scale are clear to see.
Hypixel as a studio has been through a lot in this last year. Aside from trying to create a Minecraft-esque RPG experience, the studio was also acquired by Riot Games. So the transition has been a busy time for all involved. So we thought that after just celebrating their first year under the wing of Riot Games, that there was no better time to check in with Hypixel.
In this interview, we spoke to Hypixel COO Sean McCafferty. We discussed the aforementioned transition period, their new base of operations in Derry, Northern Ireland. We discussed how things are coming along with Hytale, the NI gaming scene, and of course, we had to ask what games shaped Sean’s gaming career. So without further delay, here is our interview with Sean McCafferty of Hypixel Studios.
A Hytale To Tell
Cal: Hey Sean, first of all, thank you very much for joining us today; we understand that your time is very precious at the moment. It’s a joy to have you here and I thought we would get started with an introduction. So for our readers, if you could just tell everyone who you are, your role at Hypixel Studios and share some of your experiences within the industry to date.
Sean: Well, I’ve been mucking around with games for the past twenty years. My first experience in the industry would have been as a level designer back in 1999. We were developing a game called Dogfighter but in the end, that position ended up being a lesson in how not to run a studio. We lost control of the board and this led to our slow attritional death.
Some of those including myself opened another studio called Black Market Games, where we made Dead Hungry Diner. However, that one was a lesson in the importance of knowing who your audience is. Then after that, I really needed a break. Meanwhile, Noxy (Aaron Donaghy) was off working for Riot Games and earned himself the Minecraft guy’s title. He then got in contact with the members of Hypixel, who were then based in Quebec and eventually, he contacted me to show me what they were doing and potentially get me on board.
I initially told him to go play with his Legos and stick to my career path, but eventually, I was dragged in and started working on the Hypixel server making content there. Now, fast forward to 2014, Microsoft acquired Mojang and we are left with a choice. We either side with them and make content for them, or we go it alone and they wipe us out as they had done with other companies. So we decided to go to Mojang’s offices and we worked with them for quite a while. However, it always felt like we were making sandcastles on someone else’s sandpit.
So that’s how Hytale came to be. We split from Mojang to forge our own product. We have a great team, we can punch out content like no one’s business and we have gone from strength to strength since then.
Cal: That’s a great story and I’m glad that experience allowed you all to come together to form the strong team that you have today. So as an outsider looking in, Hytale is obviously very Minecraft-inspired. However, what I have garnered from the information available is that this game will be more narrative-based, have more RPG elements and try to do something different within the same space. Would that be fair to say?
Sean: So instead of putting a label on it, I would say Hytale is an evolution of the block building genre. There have been attempts at this by other studios but I don’t think any studio could boast that unique level of experience that our team has. Thanks to our experience working on the Hytale java server, we know Minecraft right down to its DNA. So that’s allowed us to take that and mould it into something new. Yes, it is true that none of this would exist without Minecraft. Through working within that ecosystem we all learned a lot and through passion and pain, Hytale has come to be.
Cal: It certainly sounds like an ambitious project but you seem to have a great team behind you. So I wanted to discuss Hypixel’s base of operations. You’ve set up shop near myself in Derry, Northern Ireland. Now in terms of the NI gaming scene, there are great projects underway at the moment but in terms of huge development studios setting up here, it’s not been the done thing. So I just want to ask what drew Hypixel to Derry and how has the first year been?
Sean: Well, to be brutally honest, the reason we set up here is more or less because myself and Noxy our CEO are based in Derry. We have both always been of the opinion that we want to bring back as much as we can to the gaming industry within Ireland as a whole and more specifically Derry if I’m being truly honest. It’s been a dream of mine for the best part of a decade. A lot of the reason why this has been possible is because Hypixel is for the most part, a remote company. So the studio in Derry is very much the base of operations. It’s the backbone of the company, finances, HR, all of that.
Will we expand elsewhere in the future, I don’t know, probably. However, this is an office that is built to hold up the business and that will continue to be the case. The reason why we decided on Derry is because Noxy and myself can’t move. However, we have been able to manage this because of the remote nature of the business. We have people working at the furthest point east in New Zealand and we have people working in the furthest point West in America.
Now obviously this was all sunshine and roses at the point of acquisition when the lockdown was just a precaution and we would be out again in a few months. Obviously, we are still here and we have had to adjust to the new structure. It took some getting used to but now I feel that we have a team that is more than capable of getting their respective jobs done with the current issues we face. Honestly, it’s been a joy to watch it all come together and the resilience of people working with us.
Cal: Yes, of course. It’s been a difficult time for all of us but it’s great to see that you all have overcome those obstacles. It’s something that a lot of studios have had to tackle, either leading to long delays on projects or in CDPR’s case, crunch. Has crunch ever been a concern for you guys or has the company’s natural progression made that less of a concern for you?
Sean: Now crunch is an issue that I take very seriously. Crunch only happens to studios that don’t understand their own bandwidth. It means you need scheduled work and you need to understand your rate of production. For example, we don’t have a bespoke end date for Hytale. Well, actually we sort of do, but I won’t tell you that. What I will say is that we are in a brilliant position right now and Riot have been fantastic. They are very much a resource that is there if and when we need them.
There isn’t any forced change to our structure or a hierarchy. They trust us, they let us get on with what we are doing and just ask us to touch base and keep them informed. So at the moment, everyone is really happy with how things are being managed and we will be striving to have that continue.
Plus, we have also seen a change in impetus in the last while. We have been focusing on team structure so that we can really put the foot down on production. So we have seen some new talent come to Hypixel. For example, our design team is headed up now by a guy named John Hendricks who was the creative director for Minecraft. We are getting some really impressive people on board here and it’s been an exciting period of growth for us.
Cal:It certainly sounds exciting, and it sounds like everyone is pulling in the same direction. So, you briefly touched on the Riot acquisition there. If you want to talk a bit of that process and what made you eventually agree to team up with Riot Games.
Well back in 2020, there was a lot of interest in our studio and we were having discussions with several companies. However, we had one thing which we told every interested party and that was, ‘if you plan to mess with the culture, turn around and walk away.’ We are in a position now where we are a reasonably close-knit bunch and everyone knows each other’s dogs names and stuff like that. Now we know that isn’t sustainable and there are going to be degrees of separation as time goes on. However, we wanted to side with a company that would let us handle our expansion and growth our own way and Riot let us be ourselves and handle this in the most organic way possible.
Cal: That’s great to hear. Now I want to move back to Northern Ireland’s game scene. Seeing as you guys have your base of operations within Derry, what are your relationships like with the studios and gaming facilities within NI. Entities like NI Screen and Pixel Mill for example?
Sean: Goodness, I have known Andrew Reid from NI Screen since forever. We have an excellent relationship with NI Screen Out of all the people within the NI gaming industry, NI Screen has been head and shoulders above the rest. They understand us, they are helpful, they know when to stand back and aren’t intrusive and… Yeah, I will say it, they aren’t idealistic and always looking for a photo opportunity.
I’ve been in many situations with certain entities from NI that will invite you to a swanky hotel. Then some dude pushes through the crowd, grabs your hand, turns to a camera, smiles and then walks away without so much as a hello. NI Screen is the opposite of that, they are personable and they are awesome.
Then with regards to game dev as a whole within NI, things have changed a lot. Twenty years ago when I first entered the field, game dev was three guys sitting at a table in a pub planning a game but there was no real infrastructure in NI to keep them here. So fast forward twenty years and these people are still doing really cool things in gaming. They just aren’t doing it here. That’s something that I hope Hypixel can help stop, losing that talent to studios overseas.
Something is happening at the moment though and it’s clear to see. You can see it through studios like Italic Pig and other promising studios at the moment. Through sheer will, something is going to change. Through the NI Game Awards and my engagement with that, I noticed that there aren’t cliques. I was always worried that the NI industry would become filled with cliques. However, even though I don’t engage with the NI scene anywhere near as much as I would like. You are still welcomed into the fold with open arms.
What I really want, Callum, is a gaming community that don’t all make the same mistakes. I want a community of devs and gaming facilities that help and support each other and use shared experience to avoid shared bullets. It’s hard to give one name to keep on your radar but the one I’ve been looking at most recently is Whitepot Studios, they just released a new game called Stargazing so everyone should go check them out.
Cal: I think we would all love to see that vision for the NI community come to fruition and it’s great that you guys, the big studio, are setting the benchmark for others and pushing the industry forward, giving jobs to those within NI and hopefully keeping here.
Sean: Ah, I really want to say something about that but I know I can’t. We are looking at all those that we encounter from outside of Ireland, people that are perhaps originally from here and looking at ways that we could draw them back here. It’s an official thing, we are putting something together but we aren’t quite ready to talk about it properly but it’s a very exciting thing we are planning.
Cal: Ok, well I won’t press you on that but it does sound like a great idea and I hope it works. Now I want to talk about your engagement with the community at large as well. I have seen that Hypixel and Riot Games have been engaging with the local community, particularly in Derry. Do you want to maybe discuss some of the projects that you have been involved with?
Sean: So the biggest and most recent venture was helping out the Foyle Search and Rescue. It’s something that is very close to Noxy’s heart in particular. It’s a service that is desperately underfunded and the work they do is so important, especially in this Covid-19 world we are living in right now. You hear of tragedy after tragedy and if there is anything that you can do to help, then I feel that it’s your responsibility to provide help where needed. Plus, I was always a little wary of businesses that publicly help charity after charity but I now see that it’s essential as it encourages those around them to do the same and that’s why we are making such an effort in this area.
Cal: Yeah, I know the level of effort that Foyle Search and Rescue do myself and it’s amazing to see a company such as yours acknowledge their dedication to their job. Well, I’m conscious of your time and I think I’ll finish on a lighter, more personal topic and that’s your personal gaming favourites. What games grabbed your attention as a child and what games are currently inspiring you to create new things?
Sean: Well, the game that I’m loving at the moment along with 5,000,000 plus other Vikings is Valheim. I love the simplicity and I love how it feels to play. I find myself at the moment at struggling to return to it as I’m currently save locked about 45 minutes from my boat and I can’t bear facing the trip back. That was a real rage quit moment. It’s great and I love Norse mythology so that’s a bonus too.
Then with games growing up, you could go as far back as the Atari and Pong. I know I don’t look that old but it’s true. Of course, you had your Pac-Man and Space Invaders but the first game that really engrossed me to the point that I didn’t want to go outside anymore was Bard’s Tale II. It was mostly text based, it was all swords and wizardry and heavy RPG elements. All you are doing is watching text roll past and you might hit a skeleton for 99 damage and you’ll jump off your seat with excitement.
It maybe shows how primitive games were back then but as a gamer, your brain fills in the blanks. Great graphics are great when you see them but after a while, they become less visible to the player as they become more involved with the interactive aspects of the game. I think that’s something that we have definitely taken into our development process of Hytale, it’s more about the feel of the game than anything else.
Cal: Yeah, they weren’t all text-based when I was growing up but I still get what you mean. I had the old PS1 titles with the huge polygons and with rose-tinted glasses you look back fondly. Though in reality, they didn’t look anywhere near as good as you remembered them.
Sean: Yep, I remember those polygons and you mentioning the PS1 reminds me of the day I went to grab one in Derry. Of course the day I decided to do this was the day that Bill Clinton was visiting. So I was trying to get to the shops to get my Playstation and a big security guard puts his hand up and says ‘sorry sir, this area is closed for the presidential visit.’ Then I’m sitting ranting to the secret service about how they need to let me through so I can play games. I had to wait for hours on Bill.
That’s a brilliant story and a brilliant way to sign off. I think we will leave it there, Sean. Listen, thank you so much for speaking to us today. Readers, if you want to follow the updates for Hytale, be sure to follow the official Twitter page or the official Hypixel website, which you can find right here.