Neil Jones’ Single-Minded Journey to Game Development
For Neil Jones, Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield was supposed to look like a game made by one person. “The whole point of this game was [to get people to] look at this game that someone made on their own, with pretty much no money, who the games industry said kinda wasn’t good enough, [and have them] imagine what they coulda did if they were given an opportunity or a budget,” says Jones aka Aerial_Knight, a sense of assuredness and conviction latching onto his every word. Single-minded in his determination to make this point with Never Yield, it feels like he’s shouldering the burden of rejection from an industry that couldn’t seem to find a place for him.
Yet it can be really hard for an indie game to stand out and make its mark. That goes double for a title shown during a Nintendo Direct, where tons of games can potentially be folded into a highlight reel that lasts merely a few minutes.
But when Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield took the digital stage during a Nintendo Direct earlier this year in April, I was positively floored.
Never Yield is, in a nutshell, an endless runner, where the player goes sprinting headlong through an impeccably stylish recreation of futuristic Detroit. Its eye-popping visuals are backed by an electrifying jazz soundtrack, turning the endless runner into a feast for the senses. Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield wowed me during its minute-long presentation in Nintendo’s Direct, so I was amazed to find out it was developed entirely by one person.
Immediately after Never Yield’s flashy trailer, Jones appeared in-person through a pre-recorded presentation, an aura of cool calmness enveloping Jones, with the developer speaking in smooth, self-assured tones. I was immediately won over by Jones’s incredibly laid-back presentation, hungry to find out more about the game itself and the developer creating this vision of futuristic Detroit on his own.
Yet from Jones’s point of view, the clip came at just about the worst time possible. “You can see in the clip, where I was real soft spoken and just trying to get through it,” Jones explains, telling me of his exhaustion recording the presentation for Nintendo as he was staying up “pretty much all night” in an effort to get Never Yield done. If Jones was utterly spent during the presentation, it was hard to tell, as the impression myself and many others had of him was one of passion and determination.
Where it began
Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield is set in Detroit, and for Jones, that’s where it all starts. Raised by his grandmother, a young Jones would hang out in his family-run bar, stealing quarters to spend on arcade cabinets in the back of the bar. “But she also had a Sega Genesis, for her,” Jones explains, telling me how he’d sit there and play Bejewelled with his grandma, eventually expanding to other games like Sonic. There’s a fondness in Jones’s voice as he regales this time in his life, and one immediately gets the sense it was a transformative period for the younger Jones.
Jones would store up this video game knowledge and history for high school. The developer explains he wasn’t really good at anything then: a potential problem when students were faced with the daunting choice of choosing what future to embark on upon graduation. He eventually settled on something relating to gaming and card games, and ended up paying attention to an ad on TV recruiting developers for tightening up specific aspects of games.
“I fell for it,” says Jones, with a resigned tone.
Eventually, he ended up attending a for-profit school, a place that he didn’t actually enjoy attending all that much. That’s not a rare line of thought in the U.S., where a study conducted earlier this year revealed that only 37% of Americans over 18 believed that for-profit education was worth the cost. However, Jones does point to his time there as pushing him towards game development as a full-time occupation, with the teenager putting a positive spin on a decidedly negative period in his life.
Doing things differently
But by embarking on a career in software development, Jones was, in an unexpected twist, perfectly positioned in Detroit to gain some quick games development experience. “Here in Detroit we have smaller companies who do stuff for the auto shows,” says Jones, reflecting on how he’d help construct apps specifically for trade shows. It was a job that, in his own words, was low-paying “grunt work,” but crucially kept the aspiring developer in the tech sector. Through this, Jones would use programs that were also utilised for game development in studios elsewhere. While he wasn’t necessarily in the exact field he wanted to be, it was still valuable experience.
All this time however, Jones was applying for jobs “pretty much non-stop”. Yet he just wasn’t hearing back from anyone. Although the developer was repeatedly picking up the “grunt work” contracts at smaller app-based firms, in an effort to bolster his portfolio and hone his skills using game development software, he wasn’t breaking into this space through the traditional route of joining an established studio. However, Jones was determined to see this through. Even if this means he wasn’t getting the jobs he wanted, he wasn’t above taking lower paid, less beneficial jobs to bolster his experience and knowledge.
That’s perhaps why Jones sees himself as an underdog. This notion of striking out on his own through Never Yield, especially after being rejected from internships despite over a decade of experience in this less trodden path of game development, means Jones often has to shoulder the responsibilities no one else would give him.
“The whole point of this game was [to get people to] look at this game that someone made on their own, with pretty much no money, who the games industry said kinda wasn’t good enough, [and have them] imagine what they coulda did if they were given an opportunity or a budget.”
Compounding this is also a growing frustration with games themselves. To Aerial_Knight himself, Never Yield is a game unashamedly made for the developer, by the developer: a response to growing industry trends that the developer himself doesn’t like. As a solo developer, Jones says that Never Yield was partially inspired by his observations that games are no longer short, sweet experiences, but hundred-hour epics with expansive branching narratives—built off the back of hundreds of people and many millions of dollars.
This mix of reasons was exactly why Dead Art Games—a studio that Jones founded with a friend, Daniel Wilkins, who he would later collaborate with on Never Yield’s music—came about, which was a few years before the development of Never Yield itself. Off the back of nearly ten years working on apps and freelancing for indie games, Jones explained that “Dead Art” was to be the studio’s entire branding and public image.
But there’s another obstacle that would soon greet Jones: the Kickstarter campaign for his original game in Dead Art would never meet its goal, however, despite the fact that the game—an action-adventure game named Clique—actually found a few fans. “It probably worked out for the best,” says Jones with zero hesitation, pointing to his doubts, in hindsight, that this game wasn’t the right game for the duo to be developing at that time.
“The game itself was about a little Black girl who grew up in Detroit or a Detroit-like area,” says Jones. It would involve the protagonist escaping her real-life struggles by physically jumping into games, with players soon taking on the role of the main character themselves. But the project itself was “way out of scope,” according to Jones; not only would the game have taken too long to develop between Jones and Wilkins, the Kickstarter funding would have been far too low to fulfil development requirements, even if it had been met.
“The theming of the game back then at the time was important, and would have covered a lot of important topics,” says Jones. “But it would have been talking about a lot of trauma and things like that that wouldn’t have held up,” the developer continues. This debut project from Dead Art Games was on an entirely different tangent to Never Yield. Now Jones wants to, in his own words, focus on the “cool” stuff, rather than a project that’s going to make people confront a lot of difficult topics.
The turning of tides
These painful lessons from Dead Art’s demise only added to Jones’ eventual ambition to focus on making a tightly focused game as a solo developer. One such lesson was scope, with Jones wanting to settle on a project that, if it came down to it, could be developed entirely by himself. Take for instance the lack of dialogue and text in Never Yield’s narrative, which came from a combination of Jones’ vision and budget constraints. It came together with Jones’ reluctance to deal with voiceover work, but also his vision to appeal to a wider audience on Steam and Itch.io with an entirely visual story: two platforms which Jones was originally exclusively developing for with Never Yield.
Without Jones’ knowledge, however, the tides were gradually turning for him. Things started to change when Jones cut together an eye-catching trailer for Never Yield in just two nights, after being asked to submit a clip for the Black Voices in Gaming event. It was such an impressive stint that multiple publishers reached out to Jones with the offer of publishing Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield, immediately after seeing the trailer—complete with Never Yield’s now signature eye-popping visuals and eclectic soundtrack.
Given how quickly publishers came knocking on Jones’s door, one may think that Jones was soon overwhelmed by some sort of vindication after being largely ignored by the games industry. However, Jones didn’t entirely like what he was hearing from them. “I was kinda over publishers,” he explains, adding that although he’s no lawyer, he “can read a contract,” with a wry smile. That said, one publisher stood out from the crowd: Headup Games. Jones received a letter from Headup Games that won him over, as he discovered that the publisher’s goals for the game—which is to drive home the point of developing a game on his own without putting profits first perfectly aligned with what he wanted from Never Yield.
And the avalanche of opportunities just kept beckoning. With the Nintendo Direct, where Jones appeared in person to reveal his passion project, Jones revealed that Nintendo reached out to him about featuring Never Yield in the forthcoming Nintendo Direct Mini via a 60 second video presentation. And as it turns out, the developer wasn’t even fazed by the invitation. “I don’t really like looking into stuff like that,” Jones explains, saying that he prefers to go along with a “if it happens, it happens” mentality.
Carving his own niche
Jones’s single-mindedness and tenacity also meant that even Nintendo—a billion-dollar company—couldn’t hamper his vision for Never Yield. In recording the presentation, Jones had to submit a script to Nintendo for approval beforehand. “If they tried to say ‘I can’t say this’ or censor what I wanted to say, I was gonna pass on it,” Jones says, fully prepared to walk away from the opportunity. To that end, Nintendo only had one feedback for Jones: the way he pronounced “Nintendo Switch.”
I had to wonder what Jones’ next venture after Never Yield could be. “Yeah I think I’m done with contracting work,” Jones said with zero hesitation. Right now, he’s working on a few smaller products for different smaller studios, as well as building his own prototypes of his own. While he’s still waiting to see how Never Yield will be received by audiences around the world, one thing is absolutely certain: “Aerial_Knight” is no longer looking for his place in this industry. Instead, he’s now carving one out of his own.