Last Wednesday, I got to sit down with Neil Jones, @Aerial_Knight, to talk about his new game, Aerial_Knight's Never Yield. Neil and his game both caught my attention when they were featured in an Indie World Showcase in April thanks to his “I'll do it myself” attitude and the game's flashy visuals and soundtrack.
Where You Can Learn More
I've been playing through a review copy of the game in anticipation of its release on the Nintendo Switch, Playstation, Xbox, and Steam this Wednesday, May 19th. You can listen to this interview and my live reactions through the first six chapters of the game on my podcast or by hitting play on the video below, or you can read on to get to know a bit about Neil.
Now, on to the Interview!
Troy, @TroytlePower: Well, just to start off, thank you for joining me, man. I really appreciate it. I'm really excited about the game. And, and about just your personality, to be perfectly honest, when you showed up in the Nintendo Direct, I immediately was like, even before I saw the game, I was like, “I am interested in what this game is going to be.” So I appreciate you hanging out for a bit.
Neil, @Aerial_Knight: Thank you. Yeah, it was really interesting watching people watch me, you know, the react and such. And that, you know, that video has like 10 million views now. I've never seen it. I don't watch you know, I don't watch stuff that I'm on. Just because-
Troy: Don't wanna go back and see yourself?
Neil: Yes, it's weird seeing yourself and hearing yourself. To me, my voice sounds like [switches to a high-pitched voice] really high-pitched and whiny. So, that's what it sounds like to me. [laughs]
Troy: I get it. I tell you the trick I do for myself is I only listen to my own stuff at like two and a half times speed. So that way I can't even process what my voice sounds like, then I just don't have to think about it at all. Um, so I know, one of the things that impressed me about it right away was that this has kind of been almost entirely a solo project for you, right?
Neil: Yeah, I made, like 98% of this game by myself. And the last percent was like porting and helping clean up my like broken code from, you know, my awesome publisher, and their affiliates and such.
Troy: That's cool. How did you get hooked up with them? How did you find a publisher for something like this?
Neil: So yeah, I didn't even, like, really look for one. I just got really lucky. There was a showcase The MIX [Media Indie Exchange, @indieexchange] hosted by Justin [Justin Woodward, @icjman]. Everybody knows Justin. And he knew about my game, through, you know, Black Game Dev Twitter and such. I would post updates all the time… he reached out and said, “Hey, I got a spot to fill, like, you got to be ready tomorrow.” So, I cut something together real quick for him.
The trailer that he showed was something that I did in like a night. I already had some music and stuff, like I was getting ready to make a trailer but, you know, he really gave me the opportunity. So I just stayed up all night cutting the trailer for him, sent it to him. He had me on the next day.
And then right after, you know, it went out there, a bunch of publishers reached out. I think like four or five. And I wasn't necessarily looking for a publisher. I entertained it, and I talked to a couple people and I didn't really like the deals like and, you know, publisher and contract stuff. I was like I'm not really into it.
So I gave up on having a publisher, but the guy who runs Headup [@HeadupGames], he wrote this really, really good letter to me. It broke down everything that I want to do with the game and everything I was trying to do with the game, even though I've never talked to this man before. He understood what the point was. It wasn't about, you know, any kind of money or anything like that it was more about proving a point. And he was like, “Hey, we're just here to help you. We'll help port it, and, you know, get you in contact with the console makers and such.”
And hey, it all just worked out really well.
Troy: Yeah.. That's cool. I think that the- there's a couple of discord channels and stuff I'm in with with smaller game developers. And it seems like the… it seems cynical to call it a “transaction”, but the transaction between developers and publishers can be a really tough thing for developers to-
Neil: Yeah, those deals suck. I took like a couple classes on reading contracts and stuff. So I was able to, like really see some of those flaws in those early contracts that were offered to me. And you know, I passed very politely.
Troy: Well, that's the way to do it, you got to be polite with stuff like that. But this is, so… you're kind of journey on this, you've been trying to do Game Dev stuff for a while. And I know, you've put out a couple of games like on itch and things like that before.
Troy: But this was really about like, making the game yourself. Like, like, the position of you know, if I can't get somebody to let me be a part of it, I'm gonna do it myself. And I really like that mentality. I think that that's super cool. And that's kind of… This interview is kind of a co-venture between my podcast and then Geek to Geek Media, which is a group that I work with. And that's kind of what we do over at Geek to Geek Media is, like, we just, you know, we're a bunch of people who like video games, and wanted a place to talk about video games. And so we're like, hey, let's make our own space to do that, and try and have like, a positive community to deal with video games. And we're doing more of the talking about it side than the actual making it but i think that that approach is, is really cool.
And I know, I've seen a little bit of you talking about that there was a kind of… hm, the, the right way to say this, I guess is, let's say “overlap” between some day jobs that you were working on, as well as getting some development done. I think I saw a video you did of modeling a van while at a desk or something.
Neil: Oh, yeah, like, I had, I had a desk job working at this Tennis Club. The guy who did the music, my friend, Dan [Daniel Wilkins, @DanielWilkins90], he had the same job. So we were working together. But you know, it was really, you know, there was a lot of free time. So I brought my laptop. And I at that time, I had two day jobs. So like, development of the game really took place from like, 11pm to like 4am every night. And I felt like it was going too slow. So I was like, “Hey, I don't care about this job anyway,” so let me start making this game at this desk.
So yeah, and that's how, like, that's one of the reasons Dan came on board because he saw me work on it every day. You know, he'd be like, “Man, that looks cool. This looks cool.” And then I, you know, eventually asked him to do the music. He did the music for all my games. And he was always- I was always gonna ask him, but it was nice that he, you know, offered at the same time as well.
Troy: Yeah, that's cool. And the music fits the the visuals so well, I had assumed that those kind of came together at the same time, because it just feels like such a cohesive package.
Neil: So it inspired each other. So, what me and Dan did, especially with the first song, was that I did the first chunk of the level. And then we went back and forth a lot. And we really had a hard time with our workflow and how we wanted the game to sound because everything we made just didn't fit. So we did something different where, you know, I sent Dan, this cilp of this anime, and I sent him a clip of the game in motion. And I said, “Make whatever you want based off of these two things.” So, and I said the caveat of, you know, the anime that I sent him. And he sent something- he worked all night, he sent some back because he was really inspired. And it was perfect. After like three months we was like, “This is it!”
But we made a rule that we have to listen to that song for 48 hours – I think it was 48 hours or 24 hours – 24 hours straight. I'm sure it was 48 though I just don't remember, it was so long ago. But we have to listen to it that long. And if we didn't get sick of it by the end of that time, then we can put it in the game. But you know, if we couldn't make it that whole time then you know people wouldn't want to play it you know that much. Or listen to it on a loop that much, so we had to suffer through so many songs. There's so many songs that, you know, we have that we didn't use.
Troy: Didn't quite make the cut? That's a long time for one song… The whole album. I can see for a lot of things listening to it on repeat that long, but one song on repeat…
Neil: I mean, it's not like it's blasting in your headphones, you just turn it down. It's like silent background music. So, you know, if it gives you a headache after two hours… it was pretty easy, you know? Most songs after two hours, you can really tell. So like after that point, it was pretty much yeah, it's going in the game or not.
Troy: That's awesome. I was just listening the other day, I found somebody had a video up of them playing a couple levels of the game, and I just had that on as background music while I was working, because it's just it's like a nice, nice beat to just hang out to. So I can see how that would be something that you could listen to over and over again.
And it's weird, I was playing, I was actually just this morning playing the game a little bit. And it like… it's not quite a rhythm game. Like, the jumps that you have to do don't quite perfectly match up to the beat, but I think you've given us enough leeway in the timing for the jumps, that you can kind of play it like a rhythm game, like you can almost just be hitting right to the beat. And it works.
Neil: Yeah, so it was always kind of planned out to be not rhythm based on the beat, but the game moves to the beat. If that makes sense. It makes no sense if you didn't play the game, so you have to play the game to kind of like, you have to feel it. So everything that you do matches the, the beat. But at the same time, you're not doing things to the beat.
Troy: Yeah, it's not Dance Dance Revolution, but it still has like… you still… I mean, I was sitting here like, just kind of bouncing along to it as I was playing it. And that worked really well, felt really good, but-
Neil: Yeah, play the game on mute. It's not the same thing!
Troy: I, you know, I… I have I have pretty horrible unmedicated ADHD these days. And I multitask with everything, like I'll have a podcast playing, while I play, almost every game. I haven't done that with Never Yield, and I don't know that I could because the music is like, so… it's engrossing, I don't know if it would work that way.
Neil: And also the games, you know, relatively, you know, compared to like these 100 hour games, it's pretty small. I wanted it to be the size of an action movie, or the length of action movie, because I grew very frustrated with, you know, how games are right now. Those, it's either 100 hour experience, or it's, you know, a free to play game that never ends.
And I really missed, you know, being able to sit down for like two days and just play through a game, like I did in high school. But even less so now, because with this specific game, you know, people see the normal mode, and I make it, I try to make it very appealing to everybody. So you know, you can sit here and play this with your niece or your nephew. Or, you know, if your reaction time is bad, you can play it on normal with no issues.
But if you are also looking for those challenges, you can turn it up to insane. Play it that way as well. But I intentionally didn't put an easy mode in the game, because this game's not meant to be easy. It's meant to have a little bit of a challenge. But also you can lay back and chill and enjoy it. But for everybody not for, just, you know, whoever wants to play it on a certain mode.
Troy: I think it's good at that. My wife doesn't play many games. She's kind enough to play games with me when I, you know beg her to do so. I'm like, “Come on, check this game out!” And she played yours the demo when it first came out, she played a bit of that. And playing on normal mode, like, totally worked for her. She was able to get into it. And, you know, Animal Crossing is the game she's played the most of, so that's like the level of intensity she's used to. But she was able to work with that normal mode pretty well. Because the way that you got that zoom in and it slows down and everything, which feels super good. I just realized today when I was playing it that the aspect ratio shifts when it does the slow motion, which is such a small detail, but it feels so good when it happens, because it really sucks you into that moment.
But yeah, she was able to play on that normal mode, I actually found the normal mode was almost a little trickier for me than the next step up, because the slowdown was like, it was almost too much slow down for me. I was like, “Yeah, I'm ready. Let's go. Let's go to the next one.”
Neil: So, it speeds up. So like for that first level, you know, the level everyone's played. That's more to be a continuation of the tutorial. But if you notice it, like, the slow-motion gets smaller and smaller, quicker and quicker. And the later levels you get into is pretty much a second. So we really ease you into it.
Troy: I actually, I was wondering about that. Because when I was playing today, I was playing on normal mode. And I got, I played up through chapter six today. And it felt better to me than when I had played that demo on normal mode. So I wonder if that's what it was. Is that like, there's just a little bit of compression of that slowdown that ended up feeling better for me.
Neil: Yeah, I needed a way for players to feel like, you know, the character was getting, you know better at, you know what was going on without changing any of the actual physical like button presses, you know, because the powers – powers slash, you know, things that you do – in the beginning of the game are exactly the same as when you end the game, but the end of the game feels completely different than the first level.
Troy: That's awesome. And I like, I had realized I felt better with it, but I didn't realize that that's what it shifted. So that's super cool. I'm really interested to go back and play it over again.
Neil: Yah, people look at the game and think that it's just super, like, you know, surface level, but you know, it has depth because, you know, it took me almost three years to make. So I would hope so. But to go back a little bit, like you said that your girlfriend played the demo. If she can make it through the demo, she can make it through the entire game.
And that was the point was that, you know, there's no hangups if you know, if someone doesn't beat this game, it's a choice. It's not that, you know, the game was 100 hours. It's not that the difficulty got way too crazy. Or the achievements were like super hard or something like that. It's totally a choice. Like if you don't beat the game. It wasn't for you. But I appreciate you playing.
Troy: I like it. Um, I don't… I was debating whether I want to talk story. I don't want to talk story. Because I don't, I don't yet know what's happening in the story. Like I said, I'm-
Neil: No one knows what's happening in the story!
Troy: I'm up to level six. I've started spitting out some theories. I recorded my my first episode today, playing up through level six. And so I'm talking about it while I'm playing it. And I, I've got theories about what's going on. But I don't want to get into it, because I don't want you to accidentally spoil for me. So maybe I'll come back to you later on.
Neil: I'm a master at not spoiling the story. But I will say the story is really accessible in the sense that no one speaks. So that, you know, I didn't know when, you know, starting this game that I was going to publisher or anything like that. So I wanted to you know, do all the animations… Put all the story inside of animations so that anybody in the world could play this game and understand what was going on, or at least make theories about what was going on. So yeah, I just went kind of that route with it.
The story is really hard to explain because I leave clues and hints in the game, as well as in other podcasts that I've done. Like, people ask me certain things and I'll say this, or I say that. I'm hoping that you know, when people theorize about it or whatever, they can go back and look at those things and kind of pick up something just by watching other people's interviews.
Troy: That's super cool. And I saw over on your discord channel, you've got a channel just for people to talk about the lore, which is really cool.
Neil: Yeah, and that's there if people want to, you know if people don't care about the story, and that's fine, too, because I know a lot of runner games people just skip right past you know, the cutscenes. But I put a lot of time in those cutscenes. I did all of them by myself. And I'm not an animator, so… [laughs]
Troy: I think you are an animator now. You may not want to admit it, but I think you are an animator now.
Neil: Oh, it's never happening again. Never again.
Troy: Um, well, that's actually one of the things I was gonna talk about is as far as that animation goes, I'm gonna I'm gonna pull you into that. The cinematics, when you do have – even in the middle of a lot of level where it's not quite a cutscene – but you do like a jump from from one roof to another the way you pull the camera out and show that stunt and then pop right back into the action. It's just like I was talking about that aspect ratio changing. There's a lot of small details that you put in here.
I mean, it's weird, talking about most video games, you can say, “there's a lot of small details in this game that, you know, somebody made or a whole committee of people made,” but there's a lot of small details that you put into this that really make it feel like an intense and cohesive experience. So, you may not think you're an animator, but I think you have a good eye for animation, even if you don't think you're one.
Neil: Thank you, I appreciate that.
Troy: Yeah, man, of course.
Let's see. Let's see. So I know like you mentioned playing games in high school. But did you, I'm guessing you grew up playing video games. That's been a lifelong thing for you?
Neil: Yeah, that's pretty much been everybody at this point, though.
Troy: That's true. That's true. I, so I grew up in the 90s. And that was the era where like, I feel like-
Neil: I did too, I'm older than you!
Troy: Yeah? I feel like that's where it started being that everybody had video games. But you know, like, my brother had an NES when I was born.
Neil: Arcades man!
Troy: That's true. That's true.
Neil: Because my grandma. Like, even my grandma says, like, you know, when she was younger, she played Galaga and you know, those kind of things. So like, I think it's universal. Even if you talk to your great grandmother, they're talking about them playing chess or checkers or whatnot. And those count too.
Troy: That's true. And it's becoming so ubiquitous with phone games now, like so many people are playing stuff on their phones, people who wouldn't necessarily think of themselves as a gamer, but I think they're all part of the gaming community, which is, I think a super cool thing. What I'm curious about though is if you were a foot in the camp of either a Nintendo-kid or a Sega-kid when you grew up, or were you just kind of all over the place.
Neil: Yeah, we were broke. I think we had a Sega Genesis. Just because it's what we had. It's not like, you know, it's not that we had a choice. My grandma had that for herself, actually, and she played Bejeweled and we actually got old enough to play with her. And then I remember Funkoland, we would go there and just grab stuff out the bargain bin. And you know, we would play anything. I remember playing The Last Action Hero and then that terrible Lion King game and Mickey's Illusions and stuff like that.
But then eventually, I evolved into like, kind of Nintendo just because, you know, that's what happened. Like, I think I was like, real sad. And like, I was a real sad kid. I didn't really talk much. And my grandma bought me a Gameboy with Pokemon. And it was like, the happiest I've ever been. I played it non-stop. It was it was amazing. You know, and then I kind of just picked up stuff, or she got me stuff here and there until I was old enough to get a 360. But I think everybody it's kind of just random. You ask people if they're like, Nintendo-kid or whatever. I'm like, you're a whatever your parents bought you” kid.
Troy: Yep. My household was a Nintendo household. But that was my older brother's doing if anything, but mostly it's just, you know, we had an NES when we were young, so we just kept buying Nintendo systems for a long time after that. And that's, that's definitely where my… if I had loyalties, I don't like believe in console or anything. But like, when I want to play a game, I want to play it on my Switch. That's, that's kind of what I default to. But this I know, you've got, Never Yield‘s coming out on pretty much everything right? You're on Switch, Xbox, PS4, PC.
Neil: Oh yeah, it's coming out on everything. I would say like people who normally don't play, you know, if you have a PlayStation and you don't normally play it, or Xbox, I will say my achievements, I got to pick every single one of these achievements. And it's amazing. Because I hate hard achievements. And I even got a platinum. So if you, if you play on consoles, like, you know, you can hunt down these achievements, you'll get them all just by beating the game.
So I really, you know, I don't like, you know, stuff being overly difficult for no reason, if you beat a game, you've earned all those achievements. Now if there's like a task or two that's out there that, you know, takes a little bit more skill, or whatnot, you know, so be it. But those impossible achievements? I hate those. I'm really excited to see how people react to the achievements and you know, getting them and stuff like that.
Troy: You got to do all your own names for the achievements too, right?
Neil: Oh, yeah, I named everything. And the translation people hate it, like the stuff that I was saying. I think one is called “Swagged Up,” and they was like, “What is this? What does this mean?”
Troy: Because they've got to translate, I mean, the game itself doesn't have a lot to translate. But that achievement list is a whole separate thing they've got to deal with then.
Neil: Yeah, well they did a bunch of translations for the menus and stuff like that. So once they did the menus, you know, the achievements were part of that and the names of the outfits and stuff like that that you unlock.
Troy: Oh, yeah, I didn't even think about that being a whole separate thing. I guess that'd be kind of in the same category as the achievements where it's like trying to figure out how to directly translate something like that gets a little complicated.
Troy: Um, what about these days? One of the things we do over on on Geek to Geek Media is we talk about our Weekly Geekery Do you have any, any Weekly Geekery? Anything you've been into in the past week besides just working on the game, finishing things up?
Neil: Oh the past week, I've been trying to play Concrete Genie. Um, that's a cool game. It's really chill. I've been trying to play the like smaller games ever since the, you know, the, the Twitter drama about you know, smaller games and, and whatnot. And I was I was like, I have already smaller games I never even got around to because I've been so focused on my game.
So you know, as my game comes out, I'm just gonna try to play smaller games, indie games that I missed out on, and work my way up to playing Like a Dragon. Because my friend Dan – like, you, y'all know, Dan – Dan is like really into the Yakuza games and he loves talking about it, but he can't talk about them to me because I don't play them like that. So I'm gonna play Like a Dragon. I played Judgment and Judgment was really interesting. So yeah, I'm playing it so I can talk to my friend about it.
Troy: Is Concrete Genie a VR game? Or am I thinking about something else.
Neil: No, Concrete Genie is the one where you walk around and paint on the walls. It might be VR but it was pretty good. It's pretty good.
Troy: I feel like I've seen it pop up for PSVR but maybe I'm thinking a different game.
Neil: My niece came over and she loved to watch me play it so I was like, “Well, now I have to finish it.”
Troy: I like games like that, that can have an appeal for somebody else to just hang out and watch. I think that's-
Neil: Yeah, she's still too small to like, really understand how to do all the buttons. But yeah, she likes watching me like, “Hey, paint some stars over here. Do this.” It's my favorite part.
Troy: My son's about 17 months now and he, you know, we've been at home for the past year, so he's seen a lot of video games. He's got a lot more screen time than he would have if COVID hadn't happened. But the only game he is interested in is Banjo-Kazooie I don't know why, but he loves seeing Banjo-Kazooie on the screen and he'll actually take the controller for me, and he knows what button to hit to jump. Can't figure out anything in any other game. I've tried to give him Mario I've tried to give them all kinds of stuff. Banjo-Kazooie's the only one he has any interest in.
Neil: That's how nice was with uh… what is it, Man Hunter? The one with the shark.
Troy: Yeah, yeah, Maneater.
Neil: Maneater. So I was playing that just because it was like a PlayStation Plus game. I was like, hey, “I need something to chill.” She came in and was so excited. She was like, “Eat all the people!” So we just jumped up on beaches and ate all the people. And she was laughing away and I would try to eat a dolphin or a regular fish and she was like, “No don't,” so-
Troy: That's adorable!
Neil: So it was really interesting how she had no remorse for, yeah, no remorse, humans, but like the little dolphins and you know seals or whatever. Those are off-limits.
Troy: You got to protect those. Um, I think that's about- oh, I had one more thing I was gonna ask you. I know you're an anime fan. And I got to get some recommendations from you. My buddy MC is a huge anime fan. He and I actually did a cartoon-based podcast together for a while that's been on hiatus, but I'm not a huge anime fan. And, and I know he would disown me if I didn't take a moment to ask you for a couple recommendations of some favorite animes of yours.
Neil: Okay. I only like, when people ask me for recommendations, I only ever give them one at a time. Because if I give you one, then you know that's the one you want to watch. So-
Troy: I have no excuse if you only give me one.
Neil: Right! So on Netflix, there's a show called Scissors Seven. Like “scissor,” Scissor Seven. They're really short clips. They're like, five, six minutes or whatever. And they're really, really goofy. And then they just start getting more serious and more serious. And it turns into Dragonball Z. It's amazing, and it's super short. Like you weren't, you could watch one when you're like cooking another one when you're like, about to go on a walk or something like that. But then as soon as you like, start watching them, you're just like, “I gotta watch this whole thing.” It's amazing. It's I think it's, I don't know if it's technically classified as anime, but it's a really good show.
Troy: All right, Scissor Seven, I will give it a look. Cool. Well, thank you for hanging out. The game is again, Aerial_Knight's Never Yield. Which, by the way, I love that you put your name in there. Because I mean, my podcast is called TroytlePower Presents: The Power Play-Throughs Podcast, with TroytlePower. So I get it. You got to make sure your name is in there. I love it.
Neil: What're they gonna do, tell me no?
Troy: Right? Yeah, you're making the game, they can't stop you! It comes out on May 19. Which… This is probably going to go up on Sunday, so this coming Wednesday I think?
Neil: Wednesday, Wednesday yeah.
Troy: Next Wednesday, on Switch, PlayStation, Xbox, PC… You can get all over the place. And the soundtrack I saw is up for pre-order now too on Bandcamp. Which is-
Neil: Yep, it will also, if this is Sunday, it will also probably be on Steam. You can get the thing. But you know, also follow my Twitter because I post a lot of announcements, we'll be posting announcements for the next six days. So we got some cool stuff, though, soundtrack there as well.
Troy: Awesome. And I know you post a lot when you're working on stuff, too. I don't think you have anything you can tell me about any upcoming projects or anything yet right?
Neil: Nah, man, like my biggest mistake was talking about this whole game too early. So if I was working on another one, I would wait.
Troy: I don't I don't mean to be creepy, but when I first saw the trailer for the game, I went to your Twitter and just was like scrolling back months and months and months seeing your progress on it. So definitely worth a follow to see future updates then as stuff comes out. Uh.. Cool. I think that's all I got, man, unless you got anything else you want to want to share?
Neil: Nah, I would just say that… Even though I'm getting like a lot of attention, there are so many black game developers out there. And just game developers in general, in the indie space, there is a lot going on with that. Like the AAA space and movement towards you know, free to play and these massive corporate games. But I would say just try out one of these indie games, be it mine or somebody else's. They're, most of the time they're for the price of a cup of coffee. And you never know you could find your new favorite game.
And you can go to Epic Game Store, they put stuff out for free like every week. You could always try stuff that way. So I would say just you know, try one and see how you feel about it. Because indie people, we really need your help. And you know, I think as far as games go, the more we lean towards these giant corporate AAA games, the less you know those small indie hits can exist.
Troy: Absolutely. I like it though small indie hits are where you get a lot of cool ideas that then get co-opted by the AAA games you know, 10 years later but but those indie studios-
Neil: And there's uh there's so many games that you know have these amazing mechanics and do these really cool and weird things but never get any attention. So hey, just give it a try you never know.
Troy: I like it! Alright well thank you very much for joining me and uh you know I'mma ask you. You want to- my sign-off is “until next time, tap A and hope for the best,” you want to, want to sign us off?
Neil: Yeah, this's my sign-off. “All right, thanks for listening. See you, suckers!” … No, [laughs] I like yours better, do yours!
Troy: Alright, until next time, tap A and hope for the best!
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
Thank you again to Headup Games for providing me with a copy of this game and the chance to chat with Neil. Keep an eye on TPPTPPTPwTP for episode two of my playthrough, and on Geek to Geek Media for my full review of Aerial_Knight's Never Yield!