Apr 1, 2022 - Technology

Interview: Xalavier Nelson Jr. on a better way to make games

Photo illustration of Xalavier Nelson, Jr. and an image from the game Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela. Photos: Xalavier Nelson, Jr.

Production needs to be the “chief area of innovation for gaming,” prolific game designer Xalavier Nelson Jr. tells Axios.

Why it matters: Nelson sizes up an industry full of stressed people who are struggling to make great games in a satisfying, healthy way and he wants to solve for that.

Under the label Strange Scaffold, he works in a “constellation” model that taps each person – all contractors – for their expertise.

  • He encourages them to cross over into other projects and pays them for their contributions accordingly.
  • For the Organ game, he said he worked with about 10 people, focusing on a year-and-a-half of pre-planning, followed by a “scarily productive” two months when it was actually built.

The big picture: Game development is widely seen as an exhaustive process often coupled with long, intense stretches of production.

  • The majority of games also take a long time to make. A developer sacrificing their mental health to finish a product might not see a final result for years.

“When, where, and why we bring things together is such an exciting thing,” he says.

  • “We could be making per-project processes that emphasize the humans who make them to enable better, faster, cheaper product development.”
  • “A lot of people see [game creation] as 'how do you use this as a wealth and a product and IP-generation system,' instead of ‘how do you make human-focused creation sustainable and exuberant and consistent?'”

Nelson’s approach might seem ideal for small indies and for creators who don’t need full-time job security, but he said that he has been approached for production tips by people “with much higher net worth than me” to a “distressing degree.”

  • He notes that all but one of his projects have been profitable, and expects the exception to make it soon, too.

With 60 projects under his belt in six years he says, and so many more on the way, he attributes his own drive to identity and faith.

  • “I have this small span of time in which I am alive, to be a good person and enable the people around me to do healthy, creative things and in which to make things.”
  • Pressed on where that comes from: “If we're going to get macabre about it, off the cuff, I'm a Black man living in America. If I'm running down the street, I could get shot tomorrow. I don't know how many games I have left in me.
  • “So, let's make sure that the people I'm doing things with are happy. Let's make sure I make as many things as possible before whenever God or human injustice determines it’s my time to go.”

Sign up for the new Axios Gaming newsletter here.

Go deeper