Xalavier Nelson Jr wants every game developer to feel as blessed as he does. When we speak to him in December he’s just broken up for the holidays after an especially tough spell of work. To be more precise, he’s babysitting his sister’s cats, Aramis and Allora, while she’s away at college – the first few moments of our call consist of shakycam footage of Nelson Jr pursuing Aramis around his home in El Paso, Texas. But his happiness has deeper roots even than unruly felines. It comes from the sense that his work and creative perspective feel “real and necessary”, that he has cultivated a context for appreciating his own games that doesn’t hinge on sales or external praise.
That feeling of acceptance can be hard-fought. “It strikes me that in this time, a lot of us are craving validation,” Nelson Jr goes on. “We are craving the power and the safety of being seen and our efforts being treated as inherently worthy, and the brilliant and terrifying thing about the current age of content and media creation, about working in the arts [today], is you have more agency than ever, more autonomy than ever, more opportunities than ever to be seen, but with the fracturing of the media landscape, simultaneously, fewer individual points of validation for that work.” Even well-known and financially successful developers may feel like they’re running to keep up, he adds. “I do see even people who receive that recognition, swinging between these points of existential terror as to whether their work is valid. Because as they create constantly, they need constant sources of validation, and those run out.”
Nelson Jr is certainly a “constant” creator: having reached the tender age of 25, he has worked on over 70 games as a narrative designer and writer, covering a vast spectrum of styles, genres and subject matters, from Heart Shaped Games’ Afrofuturist RPG We Are The Caretakers to his just-announced Sunshine Shuffle, in which you play cards with animal bank-robbers while decorating their boat. Many of these games have a touch of autobiography, perhaps even of self-mythologisation: Nelson Jr’s first indie title All Hail the Spider God was “inspired by body horror, my faith as a Christian, and the theme of personal interpretation [of the self] seen in Planescape Torment”, while forthcoming Max Payne-esque shooter El Paso, Elsewhere reflects (but is not reducible to) the experience of being Black in the USA.
Nelson Jr has worked on just as many larger-scale corporate projects, however, including a forthcoming VR adaptation of Netflix behemoth Stranger Things. And he has proven adept at winning recognition for his more peculiar game concepts in commercial arenas typically dominated by Marvel or HBO-influenced blockbusters. At times, he seems happier about these feats of cultural infiltration than his growing collection of official plaudits, which includes a BAFTA nomination. Consider rancid anti-business game Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator, which has found an unlikely following on Xbox Game Pass. “Taking something with that title, that premise, and transforming it into something that can exist on a Game Award stage next to Halo Infinite.”
“It strikes me that in this time, a lot of us are craving validation,”
Nelson Jr’s sheer range makes him a compelling games industry oracle, equipped to offer a top-to-bottom portrayal of a medium and community he both loves and fears for. Right now, he’s preoccupied with helping collaborators navigate capitalism’s broken meritocracy and perceive their own achievements as “real and necessary” – the tip of an iceberg of thoughts about how video game creation might become more “human-centric”, which feeds into Nelson Jr’s sense that the industry today suffers from a chronic lack of transparency. He presents his own studio, Strange Scaffold, as “one potential future for how videogames can be”, both in its eye for an eccentric premise and its efforts to ensure that collaborators feel supported and seen. It’s all in the name. “’Strange Scaffold’ comes from how you approach strange material in a reasonable way. That’s my entire perspective. Working out and improving on these processes is in many ways more important than any individual project.”
Nelson Jr is a droll mix of authoritativeness and self-deprecation. He is partial to awful jokes; indeed, some of his games, like An Airport For Aliens Currently Run By Dogs, feel like Twitter punchlines played straight. As we talk – the cat situation having been temporarily resolved – he ducks his head at the camera and puts on voices to illustrate points; we’re reminded of Space Warlord’s alien trader personas, like the super-intelligent canine Chad Shakespeare. But he is also an unabashed rhetorician who speaks in paragraphs and slogans. When we broach the question of sustainable working practices in the games industry, he comments that we’re “opening Pandora’s box”.
Nelson Jr feels that the industry and community are caught between “two separate realities that are fighting with each other for what the history and future of our medium will be. The first is that we have unprecedented tools, access to a global player base, and inherent capability to make games better, faster, cheaper, and healthier than we ever have before. Efforts that would have taken teams of hundreds or even thousands in the past can be done in like, a day, a week.”
Nelson Jr argues that the availability of tools and sharing opportunities today is unprecedented, “not just in the history of our media, but perhaps in the history of most creative mediums. For $100, you can touch the entire world by putting your game on Steam. It’s very unlikely that you’ll sell as many copies as Grand Theft Auto 5, but the fact that you can exist on there, with maybe 50 games releasing alongside you that day tops…” he pauses. “Compare that to how many people release stuff on SoundCloud a day, or YouTube videos and creative efforts on Spotify. Holy cow, those are good odds.”
This greater access and freedom is undercut by the second reality, however: a crushing climate of both risk-taking and conservatism that extends from established blockbuster studios to the indies being groomed as the next big success story. “You can see the budgets creeping higher and higher and higher. What was once the budget of an entire double-A game in the PlayStation 2 generation is now being given sometimes to a first-time indie team. They’ve never shipped anything before, and they have $5 million dropped into their lap, and they have to achieve a moonshot [which] they have, perhaps, neither the infrastructure nor the experience to achieve, let alone walk away from if it doesn’t go well.” These higher stakes make developers more inclined to converge on proven formulas, creating a legacy problem whereby the industry locks itself into trends. “We’re gonna have [digital collectible card-games] for the next three years, at least, because Slay the Spire popped off, and then people sought out publishing deals.”
“we have unprecedented tools, access to a global player base, and inherent capability to make games better, faster, cheaper, and healthier than we ever have before. Efforts that would have taken teams of hundreds or even thousands in the past can be done in like, a day, a week.”
Nelson Jr’s suggestion that the games industry struggles to make games that “operate on multiple scales” isn’t exactly trail-blazing – consider Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski’s comments from 2011 about “the death of middle class games”. But we can see his claim that there is now an extraordinary gulf between what he calls “the democratisation of videogame development” and the precariousness of videogame publishing. We can also credit his argument that this gulf both arises from and feeds back into pervasive misunderstandings about game creation among players – and to a degree, journalists – who treat the biggest, best-known productions as a yardstick for all the rest.
“There are certain games that do not work well with a live service schedule, certain games that shouldn’t have a budget above $100,000, because at that point, you dilute the magic or put pressure on the design that it does not operate well under,” Nelson Jr observes. “I find those production factors fascinating – change the conditions in which you make a thing and you change the thing you make. That’s common sense for any other medium. But in games, I don’t see this truth acknowledged quite often.” Instead, players draw false equivalences between, say, God of War and a multitude of otherwise dissimilar action games defined as ‘God of War killers’, or between games sold via the Early Access model and traditional, ‘when it’s done’ releases.
Or how about the thorny question of development length: for all the charm of Mario inventor Shigeru Miyamoto’s phrase “a delayed game is eventually good, a bad game is bad forever”, some games may be worse for extra time in the oven. “Only certain games can be made in four years. There’s a lot of games that actually don’t necessarily benefit from a four year development cycle – what you get is more and more risk attached to something that’s inherently a two year project.”
Nor is time investment uniform across a production. “There are things in certain games that take 10 minutes to build, there are things in certain games that take months to build. Between games, positions might be totally flipped just based on tools, goals and team make-up. Just because something took 10 minutes doesn’t mean it’s low effort, and just because something took months doesn’t mean that it’s high effort or high quality.” What part of a game you build when can make all the difference: “if you have a publisher milestone that does not fit your genre of game, like you have to frontload a bunch of systems or art or whatever, that has fucked up a lot of games. […] You build incomplete tools you then have for the rest of the development cycle.”
Nelson Jr feels that much, otherwise justified criticism of overwork in the industry doesn’t sufficiently account for the uneven way games are made. “If you find that you’re gonna be at a big showcase, and you have, say, two weeks of warning to make a full animated trailer and get your work exposed to the world… no one at any stage of the process is saying that you have to crunch, but crunch happens to fulfil the conditions that have been set.” Lack of awareness of differing creative circumstances make it harder to address structural problems, like the tacit institutionalisation of workplace burnout. More immediately, it leads to “a monoculture by default” where a handful of wildly successful games and their production contexts are fixed upon as the standard for all the rest.
Nelson Jr counts not just maverick independent works, but blockbusters such as DC comics adaptation Gotham Knights among the casualties of this culture. A co-op open-world brawler starring four Batman sidekicks, the latter has been heavily and unflatteringly compared to Rocksteady’s Arkham series – not unreasonable, given that it’s the work of the team behind spin-off Batman: Arkham Origins, and relies on a similar mix of stealth and melee combat. But Nelson Jr argues that the critical and player reaction has trampled the specificity of the game’s design.
“‘How do you respond to the marvellous work that your peers are putting out every day’, is a question that I pose to myself regularly.”
“You get to live out not the fantasy of being Batman [as in the Arkham series], but the fantasy of being a vigilante day-by-day – that’s why it segments the patrols that way. So much of its world design and construction is really interesting from that perspective.” He also suggests that we shouldn’t take certain technical feats for granted, like the ability to split up and roam across an entire city in multiplayer. “This is an experience that would have made our eyes bleed in the PS2 generation.” But it’s not just about saying ‘look how far we’ve come’ – Gotham Knights deserves simply to be seen for what it is in the context of its creation. “It’s not like the game is perfect, but what miracles it does achieve are not even explored or considered, because it might not sell two million copies or hit the markers of work it’s been compared to.”
That lack of production literacy is partly the responsibility of games critics and journalists – as a former columnist for outlets like PCGamer, Nelson Jr is more conscious than many developers of the influence of the press. But it’s also, he notes, the result of the industry deliberately obfuscating its own methods for commercial gain. “Once upon a time, it benefited the games industry to limit players’ production literacy, because it meant that kids would sit on the playground and argue about blast processing” – Sega’s marketing buzzword for the MegaDrive’s faster performance – “and whether it made their console better than your console. We have hit the event horizon of that no longer being the case.”
Being more transparent may be counterproductive, at least to begin with, he concedes. “It can put you in a position of vulnerability and potentially outright failure, if you’re the only person in the room admitting what you’re facing and how you’re facing it.” It’s also true that much about game development defies easy explanation, even among initiates: a certain level of obscurity is “the nature of the beast”. But Nelson Jr argues that developers, press and players alike have a “shared responsibility” to see each other clearly, not least for the sake of a kinder community. “As long as we exist in a space where that is not occurring, we’re going to deal with fundamental conditions for a lack of empathy.”
Nelson Jr likens his own relationships with ‘rival’ developers to communicating with anonymous players in California-based developer Thatgamecompany’s wordless Journey. “We exist in that same space at that same time. That’s why I don’t see a lot of my peers as competition, because I feel like we are responding to each other.” Strange Scaffold’s Witch Strandings speaks to this ethos of sympathetic response – it’s a top-down, grid and cursor-based game of eerie forest exploration and lore collection that echoes and builds on Kojima Productions’ Death Stranding. “How do you make a super low budget version of Death Stranding? How do you respond to the marvellous work that your peers are putting out every day, is a question that I pose to myself regularly.” This mindset still allows for criticism, of course, but in a way that doesn’t collapse games together or obscure their qualities. “Looking directly into the heart of the thing and saying this is the weakness – and sometimes, that hurts more.”
Nelson Jr offers Strange Scaffold, again, as one blueprint for a different creative culture, in being a studio that aims to produce original games at different scales and price points in an open and sustainable fashion. He has turned down deals that don’t fit this agenda. “We have had a lot of opportunities, especially over the past few years. We are a Black-owned creator of high quality experiences at unprecedented speed and cost, whose work in a very crowded environment, thank God, manages to consistently get visibility and attention. The reason I haven’t steered the ship in a direction that could perhaps be more profitable is because I consider the big thing I’m doing to be creating structures to build games better, faster, cheaper, and healthier than the industry assumes is possible.”
To give an example of this focus on healthier working structures, the studio recently partnered with Damien Crawford to release Purgatory Dungeoneer, an atypically introspective spin on the classic town-and-dungeon RPG. “We paid Damien a non-recoupable advance, because I think that that’s where deals should go in the future – especially when trying to secure partnership of an in-demand project, it makes sense that you would have money attached [rather than] essentially a loan.” (For context, videogame publishing contracts almost always include some kind of recoupment clause, with developers not getting paid till the publisher has recovered some or all of its advance, adding to the pressure to crank out a massive hit.)
“ I don’t see a lot of my peers as competition, because I feel like we are responding to each other.”
“Our revenue share split is, I believe, 20%, but studio resources are not included in anything that could be recouped,” Nelson Jr goes on. These resources include access to the talents of a musician and audio designer, RJ Lake. “He’s a wizard, distressing in his power. We work with him consistently.” Offering Lake’s services to Crawford at no additional cost was as much a show of respect as a commercial decision, Nelson Jr says: “here is an incredible thing to recognise that your game is going hard on so many levels.” Lest all this sound too much like self-congratulation, Nelson Jr has also been upfront about his own missteps as a project manager, taking to TikTok to discuss the perils of short development times. Its accomplishments notwithstanding, Strange Scaffold is very much a work-in-progress.
While many of the cultural issues Nelson Jr broaches arguably require much broader interventions such as unionisation, he insists that smaller gestures between developers, players and press still have meaning, if only as places to start from. “When we intentionally avoid generalisations, when we think about even the most corporate project and just give that extra little bit to see the human beings behind it, when we as developers, do not dismiss our players, when press do not use terms like ‘Death Stranding killer’… In whatever circle you have, if you seek context and speak about games in this regard, you will see a change and that change will spread.”
Nelson Jr has encountered such change everywhere in his travels up and down the ladder of game development and publishing, which is why he is fundamentally hopeful, for all his savvy articulations of the artform’s problems. This hopefulness is perhaps the key to his darker games, which explore moments of humour, connectedness and delight in fallen worlds. Even Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator – a brilliantly awful satire of the stock market rat-race – can be surprisingly joyful, its suffocating broker’s dashboard interrupted by transmissions from a wider cosmos of weirdos and grifters that feels, in hindsight, like a group of indie creatives, scrabbling for purchase.
At times, Nelson Jr’s love for his craft borders on the rhapsodic. “As I come into the holidays, and as I look at the next few years of work, I just feel thankful, I feel blessed,” he says. “I wake up every day feeling like I was built to do this work right now.” But his enthusiasm is tempered by the sense of his own good luck, as one of today’s indie celebrities – and by the recognition of how isolated and desperate many of his contemporaries feel. “So many people don’t have the freedom to contextualise their work. I get to talk about all parts of the development cycle. I get to talk about difficulties and opportunities. I feel very fortunate that I have some measure of visibility, a great deal of experience, and hopefully, the expertise to put those things into meaningful action, both for my own work and the overall health of my medium.”