This Working Life – Sean McCafferty, chief operating officer, Hypixel Studios
In conversation with Mary McCarthy
My mother would say “Our Sean works with computers”.
I would say: “I help run a video game company in Derry; I keep an eye on recruitment, I interact with our various teams to help form the strategies for the games we make and the business we want to become.”
When US firm Riot Games took us over in April and asked us where we would like to set up a HQ, it was a no-brainer as myself and our CEO, Aaron Donaghey, are from Derry.
Before this, Hypixel Studios was fully remote with employees all over the world. Now we are busy hiring for the various different functions that need to be in an office but we will keep most of the creative team remote.
There is a misconception that home working employees won’t do enough but I find they don’t stop. If I see a colleague in Chicago is online a lot at 4am, I’ll say “Dude, what are you up to?”
We would usually have met up at least three times a year at events like Minecon in the US and Insomnia in the UK and as soon as we can we will fly everyone over.
In the late 1980s we got a home computer and I would get magazines like C+VG. The games came on old cassettes back then and took an age to load. In these magazines were “poke” or cheats you have to type in before you started loading the game. I would spend hours typing in the code.
I was good at maths and physics but I hated school and found the teaching rigid and hemmed in by the syllabus. When I left school I took various jobs; spray painting lorries, harvesting potatoes. I was the bassist for a band which was a much-needed creative outlet for me.
In my early 20s I had a friend in an engineering consultancy firm and I began to work for him as a Computer Aided Design (CAD) draftsman, making building services drawings. It was not creative, but here, for the first time, I met other people who were really into computers and games and they introduced me to other like-minded souls.
The network effect
I came on board around six years ago and it’s funny how things work out — I gave Aaron his first job and then Aaron gave me, what will probably be, my last.
I met him seventeen years ago when I was giving a level design masterclass — how to create a game environment where the user interacts with the game universe — at the University of Ulster. Aaron was the student always with the hand up.
I would go out for a smoke and he would follow with really specific questions. He was so passionate and knowledgeable and a few years later when I was working at Dark Water Studios we hired him.
Engineering interactive stories
We were working on a game called Dogfighter and it was soul-destroying to put so much effort into something that did not get taken up by many.
It was like a manual for how to fail as there were no game developers on the management team.The launch got 600 purchases.
We now put the same amount of work into a mini game at Hypixel and could get 11 million purchases. Dark Water Studios soon split up and Aaron went off to England.
What followed was a lot of financial strain for me. I was broken. We were settled in Derry and there was not much work in my field.
My friend’s mother was the manager in Next and got me some temp work coming up to Christmas. I met the most lovely people in retail and putting in a day’s hard graft and finishing up at 5pm has a lot to say for it.
The problem for me was that working as a developer is addictive. I love talking to other people who get me completely. It felt like something essential was missing from my psyche.
It is a powerful emotional journey to take an idea out of my head, help build the rules and structure and put it on a screen and find that people like it. I should have stayed at Next but I took a call center job because it was better money and more hours. I didn't last six months.
And then Aaron showed up at my house with a problem that needed a solution. The previous few years had been so traumatic for me — I could not put my family through it again
Making sandcastles in someone else’s sandbox
Aaron and two Canadians (Simon Collins-Laflame and Phillipe Touchette) started out making maps on the sandbox game Minecraft; they would come across a certain problem, upload the solution to their website and it would go viral, so they figured they would host it themselves and went on to form the world's largest Minecraft server.
They developed a series of bite-sized games likePaintball Warfare and built a ‘games theme park’ of sorts. But the way Hypixel made money was destroyed in 2014 when Mojang (the Swedish games company that created Minecraft) was sold to Microsoft and existing rules surrounding what you could sell to server-goers began to be enforced.
When Aaron then asked me to join his team I made him prove the money existed. The previous few years had been so traumatic for me — I could not put my family through it again. Aaron showed me the massive community, the game design documents, all of it — I could not say no.
We had a good relationship with Mojang but we needed to build a new home for our community that runs to many millions of people. We are working on a new game called Hytale, which allows players to go on adventures in a block-based fantasy world, and we think (and hope) it will be huge when it is released next year .
Moving and improving
I used to have an office but my son, a chef in the Slieve Donard hotel, moved back during lockdown and I lost my man cave. We are in the process of moving to a bigger house and I can’t wait to have my own selfish space again.
Lately, I have been working from my bedroom and the kitchen. I try to finish around 6pm for dinner with the family, I have three sons aged 19, 23, and 28, but generally would do more work later.
Our team lives all over the world — our new design director is living in Washington and I can’t expect him to attend meetings at 1am.
I get up at 7am, bring my wife some coffee in bed and watch the news. We have breakfast together and the family heads off. I have another coffee, a cigarette and start work around 8.30am. I would play a lot of games with the boys - they are really into Among Us at the moment.
I want it all — the good home life, the good career, the good marriage. Working in the computer game world can be very absorbing at times. You need to remember to carve out time to protect your relationship so you are not left with only one of the above.