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An in-depth interview with Josh Penn Pierson about his indie dev journey creating The True Slime King, his love for pixel art, and his thoughts on the gaming industry.

James Deighan, Blogger

August 18, 2020

13 Min Read

How was The True Slime King born?

The True Slime King is heavily inspired by Super Meat Boy. The game initially started as a test to see if I could build a replay system similar to Super Meat Boy. After I built the replay system, the mechanics of the game were starting to come together, and at that point, the game was fun enough that I decided to continue development to see what it would turn into. Almost 4 years and 2000+ hours later, I'm pretty proud of what I've built with The True Slime King.

Example of the replay system (green = player; blue = replays that have beat the level; white = fastest replay that has beat the level; yellow = replays that have died without completing the level):


What is the most impressive thing, visually, about this game?

From a slightly more technical perspective, one of the more impressive things for me is the wall graphics. The game is built on a 32x32 grid, where each wall block takes up one square in that grid. I wanted to create a good visual atmosphere by having the blocks tile with each other, but I didn't want to just tile a single 32x32 graphic across the whole screen. Humans are good at picking out things that are very repetitive, and my opinion is that this kind of repetition doesn't allow for a polished look in a lot of cases. So I created a 256x256 graphic that tiles with itself vertically and horizontally (which means it only repeats every 8 grid squares). This graphic is overlaid on top of all the walls, making the walls seem like one piece. The difficult parts about this were:

  • Designing the graphics in a way that multiple pieces of different sizes could fit together seamlessly.

  • Making this system work with minimal impact on performance to the game.

I got this all working smoothly in the end, and I'm very happy with the result, but it was quite the challenge, so I understand why I haven't seen many other games implement this strategy. Most other games stick to 32x32 graphics and have many alternate graphics that can be plugged in to mix things up. However, these 32x32 graphics still need to tile at the edges of the 32x32 square, so you're still going to get a lot of repetition.



Wall graphics with just one 32x32 sprite that is tiled:



Wall graphics with the 256x256 graphic overlayed onto the walls:




What has development been like?

Development has been a slow and difficult process, but has also been very rewarding. I've learned a lot through working on The True Slime King, and my pixel art has gotten way better throughout working on the project (which has meant that I've had to go back and update a lot of the graphics I made earlier in development). It's been nice working on the project alone, since I've had complete creative freedom. At the same time, it's been difficult working on the project alone, because sometimes I feel like I exhaust my creativity for the day before I finish all my tasks, and then I just have to keep trudging on anyway and force the creativity to emerge.



Pixel art progression (bottom was my pixel art at the start of the project; top is my art after a few years working on the project):




What have been the biggest challenges?

Working on this project alone has been the single biggest challenge. I do have people I can run ideas by, but when it comes down to it, all of the creative decisions are on me, and it can be hard to know if I'm making the right decisions. If I'm having trouble making decisions, usually I will just prototype something and quickly add it to the game. Once things are in the game and I can see them in context, it's easier to figure out what direction to go in. If in doubt, I try to keep things as simple as possible. Pixel art as a whole has been very challenging for me, since my art wasn't very good at the start of the project. The main reason development has been slow is because I've had to learn a fair amount of skills along the way (mainly pixel art).


Any fun development stories?

I've had lots of fun just playing the game throughout development, but I don't have any specific fun development stories. Although, I do enjoy laughing at people dying over and over while trying to complete any of the levels in the game (as long as they're having fun). As far as pixel art goes, it's been really nice to look back at my old art and see how far I've progressed.


For a lot of people, working in the game industry is considered a dream job. Did you always know you wanted to work in video games? If not, what did you originally want to be when you grew up?

I never really dreamed of a career in the game industry. For the longest time, I had wanted to be a wildlife biologist and have a TV show like Steve Irwin. I even went to university for wildlife biology, but ended up dropping out after becoming more interested in things like computers and music. All growing up, I dreamed of making my own video games and would write up design documents for how the games would work. In any game I played that had a level editor, I would spend hours upon hours crafting my own levels, trying to figure out what elements contribute to making a good level. In high school, I had a graphing calculator that was supposed to be used for math class, but once they taught us basic programming on the calculator, I immediately realized I could start creating my own little games. I did a lot of game programming during math class and ended up failing that class. When I bought my own computer in high school, I downloaded some game development software and slowly started learning to program so that I could make video games. Over the years, I've continued to play around with making games and became more and more proficient at all aspects of game development (programming, music, art, level design). Toward the end of 2016, I decided my skills were good enough to try building and selling a game. So that's how I got to where I am today, with my first full commercial game (The True Slime King) in Early Access. I still don't have a strong craving to build a career in the game industry (my preference is more toward general software development), but I've definitely enjoyed the journey so far, and I'll just have to see where game development takes me.


What games did you play as a kid and how did they influence this?

In my youth, I played lots of Gameboy Color and Gameboy Advance games, so I had a lot of exposure to pixel art and chiptune songs. In high school, I played a lot of Dance Dance Revolution, which further developed my taste in wild electronic music. I think these two sources of music were the most influential in the music composition for The True Slime King (there are a lot of high energy songs with powerful leading melodies, which you don't find in a lot of other games these days). I always enjoyed playing games with a puzzle aspect and with technical movement, but there didn't seem to be many that combined both of those elements, so I decided to combine both of those to make The True Slime King into a precision puzzle platformer. I don't really know what influenced the pixel art style of The True Slime King (other than my exposure to a lot of other games and my general interest in pixel art). I mostly just developed my own visual style of the game throughout development.


What have you learned about yourself through this?


I wasn't sure if I had all of the skills needed to build a game entirely by myself, so getting the game to where it currently is feels like a huge accomplishment, and has empowered me to continue building other software outside of video games.


I have also learned that everything always takes longer than I originally think it will. There are several large pixel art pieces anywhere between 128x128 to 512x512 pixels that have all taken 5-10 hours each to complete just because of how many pixels to fill in  on that size of canvas. A 512x512 piece has 262,144 individual pixels, which is a lot if you're doing them all by hand. I did try to make my workflow as efficient as possible by constructing larger structures using bigger paint brushes or by copying and pasting, and then later going through and adding in the details one pixel at a time. But pixel art on larger scales ends up taking a lot of time (and can be tedious), even if you streamline a lot of the processes. For example, the piece below (207x244) took me several iterations to get to its current state, because I wanted to faithfully upscale the 16x16 player character and the 32x19 crown (that were already in the game), while still bringing some new interesting details to enhance the piece overall.






What do you love most about modern pixel art?

My favorite part about modern pixel art is all of the tools and tutorials available (although most of the time I just use GIMP, which isn't really geared toward pixel art at all). Another thing I enjoy about modern pixel art is that there are so many different styles that have emerged and matured. If I need inspiration, I can just go browse the internet for things other people have created. It's also nice to be doing pixel art as a design choice rather than being forced to out of a limitation of the game platform. Doing pixel art on more advanced computers has allowed people to do more complex and diverse things, allowing for this emergence and maturation of all the different pixel art styles.


What are you working on right now?

The True Slime King is still in Early Access, so I'm still working on it. Since I'm only working on the game part-time, I don't know how much longer it will be before full release. There's not too much more pixel art to do for the game; most of the tasks left have to do with programming or level design. Depending on how successful The True Slime King is, I might try to invest some of the money into making another game. Either way, I know I will be continuing to develop non-game software since that is more of where I want to take my career.



This last year I've been having a lot of fun adding seasonal themed objects to the game:




Anything else you want to add?

Working in the game industry is a dream for so many people, which makes it a highly competitive field. Working for companies operating in these highly desired fields can often have a lot of drawbacks, such as long hours and low pay. Starting your own business in these fields can be even more challenging (but can also be very rewarding). While my personal goal is to make a reasonable amount of money with The True Slime King, I've primarily built the game to prove to myself that I could do it. No matter what the outcome is, I will be happy, but I don't think that would be the case for many people wanting to get into the game industry. Considering this, I have mixed feelings about recommending that people follow their dream of getting into the game industry. I think people shouldn't be blind in following their dreams; they need to be aware of the state of reality and really do their research (especially in starting your own business). That said, I think it is always an excellent idea to follow your interests, improve your skills, and increase your knowledge in your free time. Those things will be invaluable in really understanding where you want to go in life, and if the game industry is where you want to go, there can be a lot of rewarding aspects to the job. I personally really love the creativity of it all: dreaming up a world and bringing that world into existence as an interactive experience.


Finally, and this is totally optional, but I love to include tips/tricks/tutorials. In some cases, people have tutorials they can already point to and share. In other cases, people will give a quick tip/best practice that works really well for them. If you have something that fits that, please share it along!  

My general design philosophy (which encompases art design) is written out on this page: https://www.thetrueslimeking.com/design.php  

If I had to learn how to do pixel art all over again, I would find a style I liked and then try to replicate that. In The True Slime King, I use a lot of outlines to make all of the objects appear distinct from their environment and other objects. I always keep the outlines only 1 pixel in width.


For art (and pixel art), my biggest recommendation is to learn lighting (and to use a consistent light direction when creating all your graphics). For me, having good shadows/highlights is pretty much all the difference between bad pixel art and good pixel art. I think this is something that just takes practice, but one of the quick tips I do have is to experiment with changing the color of the shadows/highlights. So for example, if your object is light blue, maybe try shifting the highlight color to be more greenish and try shifting the shadow color to be more dark blue or purplish. Below is an example of my process for making pixel art for The True Slime King.


Start with the base shape and colors (don't worry if the colors seem to not be very good, you can always play with that later). Then add shadows and highlights depending on where your light source is (there are a lot of different ways to do highlights and shadows in pixel art; the way it's done below is just my preference). Once I get the basic shading and highlighting done, I'll go through and adjust colors as well as the brightness of highlights and darkness of shadows.



In the game, this friendly looking mushroom actually ended up being something that kills the player if they touch it. So at some point I adjusted the design to help convey danger.


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