How a Solo Developer from Detroit Landed in Nintendo's Spotlight

Neil "Aerial_Knight" Jones never expected to be a role model for Black game developers, but sometimes, life takes a turn.
May 20, 2021, 1:00pm
A screenshot from the game Aerial_Knight's Never Yield
Screen shot courtesy ofAerial_Knight

A great joy of Nintendo's indie showcase events, with back-to-back trailers for upcoming Switch games, is how the company often centers the people behind the games, too. The rapidfire momentum can, at times, make games and creators blur together, but the moment Neil "Aerial_Knight" Jones appeared, his big smile, backed by the snappy music for his new game Aerial_Knight's Never Yield thumping in the background, commanded attention.

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These events don't take place on a stage with thousands of people clapping in the audience, but there are tens of thousands of people watching live and millions more who will catch the archive. To date, more than 10 million people have watched the video Jones was featured in.

"I recorded the video almost a hundred times or so," said Jones in a recent interview. "Being a part of the showcase was really fun. I never would have imagined ending up in that position when I started working on the game."

Nintendo reached out to Jones, asking him to be part of the video, after the game had been submitted to come out on Switch. The showcase served as a formal reveal of that version.

Jones calls Aerial_Knight's Never Yield a "narrative runner." It's a distinction worth making because the endless runner genre, an evolution of auto-scrolling levels from old platforming and action games, often involves loops, with the player starting from scratch after they die. For many, the popularity of 2009's Canabalt was their first wide exposure to a runner game.

Aerial_Knight's Never Yield, by contrast, is pitched as a game with a story, and a definitive end that can be reached in 90 minutes or so. You're encouraged to come back and beat the game faster and earn a higher score, but the first time it's sitting down to watch a movie. 

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The game's distinctive style extends to every corner of the game, especially and including its visuals, which have been compared to 2018's already-classic Into the Spider-Verse. That specific comparison irks Jones a bit, noting "it really says something about the industry that there are so few other Black characters, that being Black and jumping over things is enough to say they are similar." But given how good the movie looks, he also loves the comparison.

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The game is also largely made by a single person, Jones, with the outstanding soundtrack made in collaboration with Detroit artist Danime-Sama. The Detroit part is important, because it's where Jones is from and spent the last few years making Aerial_Knight's Never Yield. Even before COVID-19 restrictions, Detroit wasn't a hotbed for game development.

"There isn't really much of a scene outside of the small local groups which all support and help each other," he said. "We have meetups and events but not many opportunities outside of the ones we create for ourselves."

Jones has taken this notion of building your own opportunities to heart, too. You might have noticed the game is not Never Yield, but Aerial_Knight's Never Yield. That's how it's listed on Steam, the eShop, anywhere else you find the game. It was, itself, a deliberate call to action.

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"I had been looking for a better title for a lot of the early development," said Jones. "The title was originally called 'Ashes to Ashes' but it never really fit and was way too moody for what I wanted to make. When I came up with Never Yield it just kinda fit perfectly into the game's story as well as my own. However, putting my name in the title was always a part of the plan. I wanted people to know that it wasn't a large studio that made this. If they liked the game they would have to know my name."

The Nintendo event put Jones in his most visibly public spot yet, as part of a space that does not typically feature Black game developers. The positive reaction to Jones' presence, combined with the game's snazzy trailer, had people calling him a role model for other aspiring Black developers. But it's not a label Jones is particularly comfortable answering to.

"Those kinds of titles put a lot on a person and lead to disappointment when you hold them too highly," said Jones. "But since I'm in this position I want to at least be a good example and help younger Black developers where I can."

“Putting my name in the title was always a part of the plan. I wanted people to know that it wasn't a large studio that made this. If they liked the game they would have to know my name.”

In the aftermath of being featured, Jones said he's received a number of messages from Black developers that have been "very touching and have meant a lot."

The final stretch of the development happened during COVID-19. Jones spent a lot of time at home, but "after so many years working retail to get by," Jones wasn't upset to have some alone time to focus on the game. Now that it's done, however, Jones is faced with another change. Only a week after putting the finishing touches on the game, Jones accepted a full-time job at Unity. Like a lot of games, Aerial_Knight's Never Yield was built in Unity.

"It was a really good chance to have something more stable," said Jones. "During the entire development of the game I was also working two day jobs at the same time. So it took a bit of the stress off me."

Working at Unity doesn't mean Jones won't make another game. A lot of that depends on the reaction to Aerial_Knight's Never Yield. He's working on prototypes and noodling with other ideas while getting adjusted at Unity, and the future is unwritten.

Aerial_Knight's Never Yield is out now.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).