One of the great things about a maturing indie scene in the context of an increasingly digital marketplace is that it tends to highlight the efforts of game developers who would otherwise have gone unnoticed by the mainstream gaming press. And in this context, and considering all the talk about how Gen Z are perceived as being incredibly lazy, it’s heartening to discover a 20 year old game developer who is working hard towards his dreams, and who hasn’t been deterred by the increasing number of layoffs which are occurring within the development sector. Indeed, and with a number of other games already out as part of his portfolio, Ethan Harris-Austin is certainly carving out a reputation as someone who is one to watch.

I spoke to Ethan Harris-Austin about his forthcoming Lens Gloss game (which you can download the demo from Steam) and was able to ask him as to what inspired the title, and what his plans are for the future after he graduates from university. Enjoy!

Ethan, tell me a little bit about yourself. How long have you been in games development and what made you decide to embark on this journey?

Okay, I’m 20 now, and I think I started off when I was 7 years old, and I started making stop-motion animations. I was really just into making content and I used to upload them to YouTube. And after that, I got into making Flash animations. On the Flash platform I was able to start make these quizzes and little Flash games, and then Adobe stopped their support for Flash so I had to switch over to Unity and start making 2D games there. And then from Unity I got into making some 3D games and I think that’s where my journey started with games development.

Lens Gloss is a first person 3D game, however it’s not a shooting game, but more of a walking simulator. Why did you make Lens Gloss the way that it is? What was the inspiration for the game, and if you were to describe Lens Gloss to somebody who’s never heard of the title, how would you describe it?

I would describe it as a puzzle game, and you sort of get the narrative through the environment around you. So the premise is that you’re inside an animator’s head, so I try to make everything look cartoony, but also kind of creepy at the same time. And each level is based around two layers, so you’ve got the blue layer which represents his low feelings and mood, and then you’ve got the golden world which is much more positive and enthusiastic. I didn’t want it to be a really energetic fast paced game, like a shooter game. You mentioned that it was a walking simulator, and I think that’s because I wanted the player to be able to walk around and figure out puzzles in their own time, and not feel rushed.

How long is the game going to be for somebody that wants to know how long the game is?

Right, it’s going to be about two hours of gameplay. I’m going to release it in episodes, so I’m going to make the first episode and that will be two hours for the first episode.

How many episodes?

I’m thinking about two or three. It’s just more realistic for me. I can make one episode and then I get a bit of funding from it. If people like it, then I’ll carry on making it. If no one likes it, then I’ll know it’s time for me to stop and I’ll go onto my next project.

Now, obviously you’re trying to reduce the level of risk whilst ensuring that there’s a corresponding level of investment in the game by making it episodic. But one of the problems with episodic games, and I come at this from the perspective of movies, is that for a three part trilogy, sometimes the movie ends on a cliff-hanger. So with this in mind, the first chapter of Lens Gloss, is it going to end on a cliff-hanger where people end up anticipating a sequel, or would they be satisfied with whatever the ending is and what’s presented to them?

I actually think there will be some element of both. I think there will be quite a satisfying ending. But I want the ending to show that there’s going to be more to the story. So they know that the story will continue in the second episode.

How long has the game been in development for?

I started it about three years ago, but overall I spent about three months actually working on it. And I had to keep stopping to do uni work and do other projects of mine as well.

What was the inspiration for the game?

I think Bendy and the Ink Machine was one…

I have that first Bendy game and it’s still sealed. That was one of those games where I looked at it and I just loved it for its art direction, and I bought it. But I’m one of those people where I buy games, and I collect them, and they just end up sitting there collecting dust with their cellophane wrappers…

I’ve played the first episode… I think it’s the genre and style of it that I quite liked. I try to not be too inspired by anything actually, I wanted this game to be my own stuff. So with the projectors in it and all the mechanics and the two layer map, I came up with that myself. I haven’t seen another game that does it, although other people have. When they see my game, they say that it’s a bit like Portal or Psychonauts.

I was thinking about Bendy, just because of the cartoon aesthetic, but I didn’t want to say it. I don’t see Portal in there, and I don’t really see Psychonauts in there either. I did see Bendy in there, especially when you mentioned the cartoon, but I didn’t want to mention it because you were talking. I thought I’d let you mention it… Anyway, when’s the game out?

I think it will be out next year 2025… Because I’m still at uni and I’ve got too many things going on.

What are you studying at uni if you don’t mind me asking?

Game Design and Enterprise…

Game development courses at university cost money. So at undergraduate level, you’re probably talking about £30k to £40k as an overall cost. Why did you decide to embark on a university degree, as opposed to just learning all of that stuff via YouTube and becoming self-taught, and maybe just saving the £40k?

I was already self-taught before I went to uni, but the reason I decided to embark on the uni course is because it opened doors to opportunities. They let me join Games Talent Wales, they gave me funding for my game, and they made my dreams slightly more possible.

When do you graduate?

2026 is when I graduate. I’m currently in my second year, I’ve got one year where I’ve got an industrial placement next year, and then my third year, and then I’m graduating.

Okay, what are your plans after 2026?

My plan would be to carry on working on indie projects. I think I’ll probably get a daytime job so I can survive, and then work on my own passion projects alongside it. Or plan B would be to work as a studio.

There was a time when being a games developer was considered to be a lucrative profession. Even though games development as a whole is underpaid in comparison to other professions that are of a similar ilk, such as being a programmer for Facebook for example. How do you feel as somebody who’s a student, and who is paying for an education, and who is paying to become qualified in a profession where the profession as a whole is undergoing serious amounts of layoffs? How does that make you feel in terms of your own sense of security as a developer? I don’t even mean that in terms of being a developer, but just as a professional who is thinking about… well, is your university course worth it? Do you think it’s worth it?

I do think it’s worth it.

What advice would you give to people who want to go to university and do a game design course?

I think the one thing you need to remember, or think about, is “why am I doing game dev?” And I think to make money is not one of the reasons why you’re doing game dev. For me, it’s an art-form where I can express myself, and anyone can upload a game to Steam these days. It’s really easy. And I think that’s what you’ve got to be thinking: “Why am I doing it? How does it make me feel when I make a game? Is it exciting and all that kind of stuff?” And that’s the main reason why I do game development. So the fact that there’s been lots of layoffs, I don’t think it’s good news. I do feel sorry for those who’ve been laid off, but it doesn’t actually phase me at all from my journey. I still feel incredibly motivated to make games and to release them.

Thank you so much.

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