The game industry is a difficult one to work in.
Developers often have to work overly long hours to polish a game in time to meet deadlines for its release. Surviving in the industry is tough. Surveys show that on average, developers work for 2.2 companies in a five-year span as volatility leads to studio closures and layoffs with some frequency.
Just breaking into the industry is an ordeal. Developer Neil Jones, who’s better known by his online moniker, Aerial_Knight, spent years trying. Companies offered numerous reasons for why they couldn’t hire him, so Jones began developing his own game, Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield.
“Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield was made as a test for if I should stay in the game industry,” Jones tells Inverse. “If people liked it then I’d keep going. If not, I’d move onto another career.”
Inverse sat down with Jones to discuss his path into the industry, how he thinks gaming standards should change, and what inspired Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield.
How did the name Aerial_Knight come about?
It’s been my gamertag since high school. My friend was called Aerial_ “something.” We played together all the time, so I wanted to be “Aerial”_something else. My real name, Neil, means some kind of hero. What’s more heroic than a knight?
What inspired making Never Yield?
I spent a long time trying to break into the game industry, but I couldn’t get even an entry-level job.
They’d tell me they didn't have space for me for various weird reasons. It made me frustrated with how the game industry operates. I had to make an entrance for myself. I started working on little projects either by myself or with friends while I had a day job.
I still apply for game industry jobs sometimes, but I rarely get a reply. When I do, it’s always “my work is great,” but I don’t fit the “culture” that they're trying to build.
It was never about the work.
I made Never Yield more for myself than anybody else. Nobody could tell me no.
I tried to keep that mindset throughout development, even after getting a publisher. It was always meant just to be my ideal game.
How did Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield make its way from Steam to consoles?
People really enjoyed the demo, and it was featured in a showcase, which caused a publisher to reach out afterward. We made some stuff happen. They helped me with all the porting, which wasn’t tough because it doesn’t have anything ambitious like online multiplayer.
You've described the game as a narrative runner. Playing it reminds me of rhythm and puzzle games. How did different genres influence your game design?
I call it a narrative runner because it's a runner with a story that has an ending. People often write it off as another runner. But there's no procedural generation or anything like what you see in other runners. Every obstacle is hand-placed.
I was inspired by classic flash games and other browser games I played as a kid. I wanted to bring those games into the future, so I added a story, cutscenes, and different outfits.
I also wanted to make it a simple experience, something that people can rally around that more casual gamers might also find appealing, even speedrunners or those who finish a game in a single sitting.
My biggest frustration with gaming over the years has been how much you need to commit either financially or with your time. Sometimes you don't feel like playing a 100-hour game.
Don't you miss going to your local game shop, picking up a AA game and beating it in a weekend? The frustration was the motive behind making it only an hour and a half.
How long do you think an ideal game should be?
It depends. Indie games can be anything, but shouldn’t go over 10 hours, AA games should take 15 hours. AAA games can take around 30 hours before I’m sick of them. There are exceptions like with some JRPGs such as Persona.
Why do you think there's a difference in how long games should be?
AAA games can really flesh everything out with the sheer manpower that they have behind their studio. When you buy a $60 AAA game, you expect a bang for your buck. I thought about it by looking at myself in high school and how long it took for me to grow tired of a game.
AA games are like those quick popcorn movies where 15 hours is a solid amount of time for a video game. Indies, they can be anything, so it's better to play those without expectations.
Shouldn't all games ideally have no expectations?
That's logically true. But I’d probably be upset wouldn't be upset if I paid $60 for a game that took 15 minutes to beat. And that's dramatic, yes. It's all relative really, in, you know, based off of, you know, you know, past history with games. 100 hours is just too much.
I noticed a lot of Japanese in the background of Never Yield. What inspired that?
Being from the black community, we all gravitate towards kung fu movies and those types of things. I remember loving Rush Hour. Slightly mixing those cultures excites me. I always try to incorporate some aspect of that as a reference.
Was Never Yield inspired by anime?
It inspired some of the music. We spent a long time trying to figure out the game’s sound and went through different styles. Cowboy Bebop helped us hone in on a specific sound.
That was the most notable reference when we were creating the soundtrack and making it feel like the heart of the game. As you said earlier, it's not a rhythm-based game, technically, but the game bounces to the music. You can feel the music in each level but you're not necessarily moving to the beat.
Why did you choose to replace “Quit” and “Continue” with “Never” and “Yield?
Well, originally, the name of the game was something else, but I’m not sure it quite fit the game. When I came up with Never Yield, I just saw the opportunity to switch those out. I couldn't not do it.
I noticed that when you're given the option between “Never” and “Yield” there's a timer, but when it runs out, the game automatically selects “Never.” What went into that design choice?
Sometimes people get frustrated and just need a second to breathe. I chose that to push them back into the game. The option to quit is just me giving the player a way out. So every time you die, I give you a chance to confirm you want to keep trying.
Never Yield’s protagonist has a prosthetic leg. Why did you make this choice?
Wally, the protagonist, is based on a lot of different characters and people, specifically my uncle who lived with me and my grandma. He lost his leg and had this cool prosthetic. It wasn’t there when I started, but the character already looked a little bit like him. Including the leg was another reference to my uncle and it helps him stand out.
How important to you was making the game feel diverse?
It's not diverse to me. It's diverse to you. I grew up in Detroit. Everybody I know is black. So this just looks like Tuesday to me. I know in the grand scheme of the game industry, it is. But the main character was based on my uncle and Eddie Murphy and stuff like that. Other characters are based on other things that people have to figure out. It all makes sense once you figure it out.
How was the game inspired by Eddie Murphy?
I went to a school in Detroit called Mumford. In Beverly Hills Cop, his character is from Detroit, and to research the city, Eddie Murphy went to Mumford. They gave him the school gym t-shirt. And then he wore it in the movie. I thought that was the coolest story ever.
I love that story so much. that everything my character wears is based on Eddie Murphy's outfit. That's why we call it the “Foley” outfit in the game, like Eddie Murphy’s character, Axel Foley. It’s not a direct reference, but I really like that story. So I wanted to put that in there.
Is there an overall idea that ties Never_Yield altogether?
You are the only one in your own way. That’s the whole point of the game.
Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield is now available on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Nintendo Switch, and Steam.