Students in Lecturer Karl Koehle’s Pixel and Vector Art courses contributed to the creation of a UW-Stout campus map in pixel art style. Forty-two students from two classes worked for four weeks developing more than five-hundred digital layers of custom content.
Lecturer Koehle divided the campus and surrounding area into city blocks, assigning each student an individual section, or tile, of the map-to-be.
“We created a basic ground-plan of the map’s tiles with grid-lines running parallel to each other in an isometric view," explained Koehle. "With no focal point in the horizon, each city block is in equal proportion to those adjacent, giving each student an equally-sized tile to develop. To work within this isometric view forces students to create art within restraints.”
With their individual tile in mind, students visited Heather Stecklein at the University Archives to learn about the history of campus buildings and to acquire a bird’s eye view of the area using other maps for reference.
“With their research complete, the students were ready to begin the development process," Koehle said. "Even with this daunting task ahead of them, they responded with excitement from the get-go.”
Let the creative juices flow
Although their map would not be interactive, students drew inspiration from pixel art video games such as SimCity, Undertale, Stardew Valley, Cave Story, and Army of Trolls.
“Pixel art has a special niche. It has a nostalgic factor and level of appreciation,” said Kristen Protheroe, a senior majoring in Animation and Digital Media. “Pixel art is rampant in the indie movement. It cuts down on work and is easier to create more content. It’s efficient and allows for two artists to do the work of twenty."
Using Adobe Photoshop and Piskel, an online tool focused on the creation of pixel art, students developed custom content included buildings, walkways and streets, waves on Lake Menomin, and objects on and around campus.
“Piskel is designed for animators but is intuitive enough for anyone to use it," Protheroe said. "It’s free and has all you need, with the freedom to export your work.”
Piskel also has the capability to create a color palette. As a team, the students agreed on a palette of thirty-two colors.
“Sharing a color palette with forty-two collaborators gave our map a sense of cohesion," explained Jace Brockopp, a sophomore in Game Design and Development. "Everything ties together. Everything fits well.”
After developing the first layer of tiles, usually of a solid color to represent road or grass or water, students submitted the layers to Koehle. Subsequent layers became more and more detailed as the project progressed.
“I populated the layers in Photoshop, placing the tiles onto a digital grid, layering levels one by one," Koehle said. "I kept a code of each layer and each tile within each layer, knowing where to place it within the grid and tracking each student’s progress.”
Campus buildings and area businesses began to take shape and became recognizable as more and more layers were developed and stacked. Environmental assets like cars, light posts, sculptures, and fish in the lake were added. Characters like Godzilla, jack-o-lanterns, and UFOs give each tile personal flair.
The color palette evolved when it came time to add foliage to trees. With each student having his or her own perception of what a tree should look like, there are green trees, leafless trees, and trees with changing leaves. All four seasons are represented at once on the map. Some trees appear as though a particular block of Stout were located in the jungle.
To top it all off, students created personal avatars to live within the map itself, with each avatar representing the students’ own aesthetics. A key to the avatars is included in the map, crediting the forty-two collaborators. They even thought to add the challenge of “Where’s Walda?”.
These touches invite viewers to take a closer look and appreciate the details that make the map unique.
“It’s quirky because it represents each of us,” said Syd Simonis laughing, a sophomore in Game Design and Development. “It would be dull if it were all one style, but it still fits our campus’s style.”