Tile Graphics Techniques 1.0

April 1996
by Jason McIntosh

Re-Formated and Ilustrated by Greg Breland

Techniques 1.0 is copyright 1996 Jason McIntosh. All rights reserved. Freely distributable if unmodified and in its entirety.

To contact the author via email: Though this text is not shareware, if you find it worthy of a donation, I will gladly accept any amount of money you offer (since I am a starving programmer looking for an employer).
    1427 Fairlane Dr.
    Richmond, KY 40475
This is my mother's address, since it is effectively permanent.

What's This Document (Not) About?

I wrote a CRPG for my Amiga and got about 85% finished when I bought my PC and dropped the Amiga project to learn PC programming. The point is that while that game was/is really cool, I have learned and developed much since then. Here's my (partial) full disclosure :)

This document will cover graphics in the style of Ultima 6 (presumably Ultima 7 as well, but I have never played it-- read on). I will also discuss many of the same techniques that Greg Taylor covered in his Tile-Based Games FAQ. That is one reason that I have composed this document, because I found the information in Greg's FAQ to be somewhat disappointing. I hope to present some ideas that will advance those he overviewed. Granted, he covered lots of things I won't cover here (roof tiles, hidden map areas, palette shifting), but there are so many fundamentals that could be implemented in a better way, I had to put out an alternate solution. Oh yeah, it is presumed that the reader has a solid understanding of C programming.

While Mr. Taylor tended to emphasize the 640K barrier, I think that everyone should get a 32-bit, protected mode compiler. Let's face it, the small overhead of running a DOS extender with your protected mode program is negligible in the face of the benefits gained. I feel it's a fair assertion to assume that people who play games have at least 4 megs in their machine. Catering to the lowest common denominator (i.e., 286/640K) is a good thing as long as that denominator isn't too low. I think nowadays, a 486-33/4meg is a decent denominator. The hassles of EMS and conventional memory simply disappear when protected mode is used. I've never been more frustrated by this situation than when I couldn't get Ultima 7 to run on my snappy Pentium because I had to create a boot disk and still couldn't free the conventional memory required (without purchasing a commercial memory manager). I own U7, but I've never played it. That kind of annoyance can be avoided by simply using a "modern" compiler, with the added bonus that most of the time, it will run in the increasingly popular environment, Windows 95. (Sorry to be ranting but that's another reason I'm writing this document :)

Note: I am assuming that you are interested in CRPGs since they are the most common game genre to employ this sort of graphics. Of course, the techniques can be applied to any game or genre (ie, a strategy game).


For the uninitiated, here's a list of some terms I use and their meanings relative to my conceptions of them.

ClippingThis is limiting the plotting of a tile to within an arbitrary boundary (the screen edge, for example). If the tile's graphic imagery crosses this boundary, it is "clipped"or trimmed so that only the area within the boundary gets drawn.
MaskingWhen a tile is draw to the screen with masking, all pixels of a predetermined color are not plotted so that the tile will only cover the background where the shape of the graphic dictates. No big, blank boxes around the graphic imagery.
NPCStands for Non-Player Character, or anyone that the player cannot directly control.
ObjectI refer to these in this document not in the sense of OOP, but as an independently defined data structure that describes something in your game universe (a person, an item, or a map entity).
TileAlso called an icon, a bob, a sprite. It is, simply, an arbitrarily sized bitmap (though commonly 16x16 pixels).

Plotting Tiles

The first task to creating a tile-based game is plotting the landscape and its inhabitants. Well, I will assume that you have several routines already:

  • Plot a 16x16 tile, without masking (which is faster than with masking).
  • Plot an arbitrarily sized tile, with masking.
  • Either of the above routines with clipping (though this is optional).
I won't waste time getting detailed about how to plot tiles, as there are many good tutorials available on the subject (get XLib and don't worry about the nuts and bolts of it).

Maps and the Lay of the Land

Greg Taylor mentions multiple layered maps. He's absolutely right: you will need multiple layers to get any kind of complex graphics in your world. But, he didn't take the idea far enough.

Three Dimensional Arrays

Let's look at a typical way of implementing a map: arrays. Good ole arrays. When we all programmed in BASIC and arrays were all we had, sure, use them for your maps. Simply declare map[100][100] and there you have it. Want multiple layers? Okay, map[3][100][100]. There!

Well, here's what I suggest. Keep the first declaration. But what we want to achieve is massive flexibility. We don't want to be limited to 3 layers or waste memory when we need less. (Side note: efficiency is _always_ of utmost concern! I don't care if your target platform has 32 terabytes of memory, always optimize for space and speed!) So how do we get unlimited layers while using only as much memory as required at any given moment?

About the time you take Pascal in your CS cirriculum, they'll teach you about a thing called a linked-list. Perhaps already you can guess what I'm about to explain...

If we define our _entire_ map as map[100][100], then for each element in that array, we define a list header. Yep, each element is a linked-list. You might be thinking, "But what about space optimization? Won't 10,000 linked lists be wasted memory?" Below we'll talk about ways to access the map incrementally, which will solve this huge array problem. As it stands, the answer to your question is still "No."

Remember that we had map[3][100][100], which (at minimum) is 30,000 bytes. Granted, a linked list header may be 8 bytes itself which means map[100][100] is 80,000 bytes. Yes, it's bigger, but even without special techniques for accessing only part of the map at once, the payoff in flexibility and graphic enhancement makes it worth the size. This is another reason for using a protected mode compiler-- when you absolutely have to, you can have these huge structures without worry of hitting any stupid 640K limit.

Okay, so you accept what I've said so far? Okay, then, on to the map representation. How do we use these linked lists to achieve multiple layers? This will require some sort of map "object" definition.

struct map_tile {
  struct map_tile  *next;   // pointer to next in list
  struct tile_gfx  *tile;   // pointer to graphic imagery object
  char             type;    // keep reading...
  char             bitflags;

For example:

        LIST_HEADER -> map_tile -> map_tile -> NULL
map[1][0] LIST_HEADER -> map_tile-> NULL

...and so on. Using this setup, the first map_tile is the bottom-most layer in your map. Each successive layer simply adds another map_tile to that specific map position (ie, map element, ie, list). This way, you could stack twenty tiles on one map position, while having only two on a tile nearby-- with no memory wasted on empty spaces! That is the big payoff for this technique.

I would advise that you follow some conventions.

  1. The first map_tile in a list should be a ground layer (ie, grass, sand). It should also be a constant 16x16 tile that should be plotted without masking.
  2. All map_tiles after the first can be variant sized (up to 32x32) and should be plotted with masking. These successive layers will be trees, rocks, walls, people, monsters, swords, treasures, and anything else.

If you're wondering how I intend to handle a 32x32 tile in a 16x16 tile world, keep reading. Let's get the basics down first. In fact, let's drop this for the moment and discuss some fundamental ideas about representing NPCs and items for a game.

The Flesh of a Soul

I should explain that I delineate objects from their graphics. That is, there are separate structures for objects and for their graphic imagery. For example:

struct npc_object {
     struct npc_object      *next;    // keep a pointer handy for later
     struct tile_gfx        *tile;    // pointer to the graphic imagery for this guy
     struct attributes      atts;     // str, dex, hp, inventory, etc.
     char                   x_loc;    // location on map
     char                   y_loc;    // may need to be an unsigned short if the map
                                      // is bigger than 255x255 squares

struct tile_gfx {
     struct tile_gfx      *next;        // always
     char                 *imagery;     // pointer to the actual bitmap data
     char                 x_size;       // size in pixels
     char                 y_size;
     char                 x_offset;     // for handling those 32x32 tiles
     char                 y_offset;
     char                 bitflags;     // 8 bitflags (ie, masked?, animated?, etc)
     char                 align;        // align to dword boundary

So when a person or monster is plotted to the screen, the tile information for each character can be totally different and referenced through the NPC structure. Likewise for items. Remember that these graphics will be drawn with masking so that the map background can still show through.

With this in mind, we commence with map specifics.

Plotting Map Layers

struct linked_list map[100][100];

This is our map definition. We have a separate linked list holding all NPCs that are active and their relevant information.

In Ultima 6, if a character went in a doorway, the character appeared under the archway. The characters were further obscured by tall signs, and the like. This is a very cool and realistic effect. (Though I haven't done benchmarks on any of the mapping techniques here, I suspect that what I'm building up to will require a fair amount of horsepower. Hopefully our common denominator 486-33 will suffice.)

To achieve this obscuring effect, I would flag each map_tile as either "under" or "over" (thus, the need for the bitflags field in the map_tile structure). The bottom layer (ground) will definitely be "under" since all tiles get plotted over these regardless. Things like trees, walls and open doorways should be "over" since the player could potentially appear obscured by such objects. For best efficiency, sort all these tile lists so that "under" tiles come before "over" tiles.

Here's how the plotting algorithm should work:

    A) Plot all ground tiles (ie, the first tile in each list).
    B) Plot all tiles flagged "under."
    C) Plot all NPCs and items.
    D) Plot all tiles flagged "over."
The plotting should go from upper-left to lower-right to appear correct.

The 32 Pixel Question

32x32 Tile alignment

Now that the basic map structure and function is understood (it is, isn't it?), we can get to the 32x32 tile question. Since all tiles have a 16x16 "base" anything over this size will simply be plotted with an offset. The offset should force the lower-right corner of the tile to align with the 16x16 pixel base.

A tile that is 20x17 would have an x_offset of -4, y_offset of -1. This is calculated with (16 - x_size), (16 - y_size). If a tile is smaller than 16x16 (a knife, for example), then it will have a positive offset. Look: a 7x10 tile has +8 x_offset, +6 y_offset.

That is, unless you want to center small tiles in the 16x16 pixel space. That's easy enough.

So now we see how a larger tile can obscure those in adjacent locations. A very tall tree would do this. This ain't Ultima 4 anymore! Let's get out of the 80's technology and at least catch up to early 90's.

With this outline, hopefully you can exploit the possibilities yourself. Imagine the flexibility over the "old" array technique. Instead of drawing millions of tiles for each piece of scenery like a plain wall, another wall with a torch on it, etc, you simply draw the plain wall, draw the torch, then stack the picture tile on the wall tile. You can reuse the torch for different wall types without drawing a new wall with a torch on it. Again, this saves storage space by having fewer graphics but with more variety.

Material Objects and Possessions

Handling item objects, if you want Ultima-level technology, requires that each object be defined in a detailed way and managed much like NPCs-- with a linked list. This is a little more complicated, but the enrichment of the game environment is incredible. In my Amiga implementation, for example, I defined objects that can be moved, carried, used, contain other objects, etc, just like Ultima 6. This allows your universes to really come to life.

All you really have to do is have a main item list, call it all_items. This list will hold each and every item that exists in your world from a bedroll to a candle to a ration of food. It's handling this list safely and cleanly that presents the major problem. And if you have a solid knowledge of lists this is not much of a problem. I suggest that you build a list library of common functions (ie, insertion, deletion, creation, destruction) or find a library that already exists and works reliably. Then apply these concepts.

But now, let us aside to something else of relevance to our all_items linked list.

Accessing the World Map Incrementally

Since I've mentioned Greg Taylor's FAQ previously, I will come to it again. He suggests holding the entire map on disk and "paging" in only the areas that are close by. That's exactly what I suggest. The only hairy part is the nature of my maps. They are linked lists and this makes for a complication when accessing them bits at a time.

The main barrier, then, is the storage format. How do we store a map when it's a huge array of linked lists and link nodes? Well, there are many possibilities. One is to encode the data with "identifier" bytes. There are several variations of this.

For each map location (map[x][y]), we write to disk the number of nodes in each list at that location (minimum 1, because we have to have a ground tile). This is very simple. To retrieve it is the tricky part.

  1. Read one byte. If it is zero, then we have no more nodes for the current x:y position. If it is non-zero, we have to read that many nodes from disk, building the list on the fly. Keep reading nodes until the Nth node is finally read.
  2. Repeat step A until the entire section of map we want is read into memory.
In code:

char c, i, x, y;
struct map_tile *mt;

x = current_x_position;              // these will probably be assigned by a loop
y = current_y_position;
while (1) {                          // loop infinitely, so be careful!

  c = fgetc(filehandle);             // read our encoding byte
  if (feof(filehandle)) break;       // end the loop, we are out of data
                                     // you'll also check to see if you've read all 
                                     // neccessary data and use break to exit the loop
  for (i=0; i<< c; i++) {            // read as many nodes as encoded

    mt = newnode();                  // remember to do failure checks and handle errors!
    fread(mt, sizeof(struct map_tile), 1, filehandle);
    addnode(map[x][y], mt);          // put the new node in the map lists
                                     // continue reading nodes until all map data is in memory

This code fragment leaves out quite a bit, like list details and deciding what map coordinate range you need to read. At least you get to see the principles in action. There is _lots_ of linked list juggling. You must be very, very careful about memory leaks and such when programming this. Take your time, comment your code, and know what you're doing! With this sort of code, you need to plan out exactly what to do. Some more than others, but everyone needs a plan.

Another method would require that you add two new fields to the map_tile structure:

struct map_tile {
     struct map_tile         *next;
     struct tile_gfx         *tile;
     char                    type;
     char                    bitflags;
     char                    x_loc;     // store each tile's location here
     char                    y_loc;

Now, when you read a tile, it has the location information in it. You simply insert the read node into the according list in memory. I like the first method better, though, because it uses less disk space since the encoding only requires one byte, especially for maps > 255x255 that will need a short for index reference. I leave the final decision with you, because there are better ways to implement this, I'm sure.

Now that we can access the map at arbitrary points from disk, how do we decide what to store in memory and when to load more? As Greg states, look at the current map "chunk" as a set of 9 small areas, theoretical boundaries actually...

Structure of the map

Each small area might represent a 10x10 map chunk. As the player moves across the middle boundaries, the map data is shifted (scrolled) and whatever areas are "blank" afterward will be the ones we load from disk. Refer to Greg's FAQ for more explanation, if you need it. Hopefully, it is self-evident.

I will only say that you must remember to deallocate all nodes no longer needed. This cannot be over-stated. You will find many, many bugs lurking in this section of your program if you are not an alert programmer. I learned this through tedious hours of memory leak chasing. Tedious hours.

And What of Our Possessions

We come back to our discussion of the all_items linked list. Since your world may be exceedingly large (my project included over 400 items at 85% completion), you will not want to keep this whole list all the time. If memory allows, sure, keep it in memory for speed. If not, then access it from disk when needed. Elaboration follows.

Like the huge map, which only comes into memory in chunks, we only need parts of the all_items list in memory at any one time. Two reasons: 1) it is far less space consuming than keeping 1000 items in memory all the time, 2) it is much quicker when performing operations on the items (ie, searches, etc).

Point 2) is particularly of interest since we will be dealing with those items closest to the player the most often. Doesn't it make sense to keep only the necessary items in another list, a "local" list? Of course it does.

Each time the player wants to manipulate an item (say, picking up a sword), the program will have to find the item in question by searching the list. Then it will have to perform some operation(s) on it (ie, place the sword in the players possession). This is not to mention the fact that each graphic update will require searching the list of items to determine which are visible and which are not. Now this makes perfect sense, right?

So we establish a secondary linked list: local_items. This list will grow and shrink as the player moves through the landscape. Items will get moved to and from this list and the all_items list. all_items will hold items not currently used. I would recommend holding all_items in memory when possible for speed issues and issues of altering the game state-- that is, as related to saved games.

You see, if you want to save a game in progress, all object lists must be written to disk. But if you are constantly writing over the all_items list, and the computer crashes, that game state is ruined because part of all_items was in memory, and not all of it was on disk since item in local_items are literally removed from all_items. Follow?

The solution is to simply store all_items, for game use, in a temporary copy of the initial game state. That way, all previous information is preserved and you safely work with a copy. But to avoid all this hocus, keep the lists in memory at all times, only updating the disk image when a game is saved. I hope all that soaked in. If not, re-read it in a couple days.

Straying From the Path

I seem to have gone off on a few tangents here. But I think that they are all an integral part of the big picture. Now I would like to address some of the problems from Greg's FAQ that this framework fixes (I'm not picking on him, but I am hopefully building on his information), with direct references to his work.

III: Walkability

To create a map space that cannot be crossed by the player, simply use the bitflags to denote a barrier object. This can be either a map_tile, a npc_object, or an item_object. If any one of these appears in the location that the player is about to move into, then movement is restricted. Simple and clean, and no need to make any limitations on the map or objects.

In fact, I divide barriers into several classes. One is a total barrier. Another only restricts movement-- but not things like arrows or spells flying across them. Another only restricts arrows and such, but not movement (for magical sanctuaries). This can all be achieved by using those simple bitflags in each object structure.

For those of you who want to see code...

#define flag_BARRIER      (1)            // this blocks movement and missiles
#define flag_MOVEBARRIER  (1<<1)         // block movement only
#define flag_MISSLEBAR    (1<<2)         // block missiles only

Then, wherever your code handles movement...

if (map[x][y].bitflags & flag_BARRIER)     // this checks for the bitflag

Of course, accessing the map data will involve checking each object in the x,y location list in question for these flags, but you get the idea.

VI: the OBJECT layer

Greg has no autonomous objects. His maps hold object information, much like Ultima 4 probably did. With my system, there is no such restriction and no limitations. You can stack gobs of objects and hordes of people, too, since they all exist independent of the map data.

So Close, Yet So Far

I could go on typing about different areas of CRPG making for hours, but I want to limit this document to tile graphics related problems. I should probably work all of this up into a book and include a demo and tons of source code, but who would publish it? :) Potential future installments...

Using event flags to trigger changes in the game world (ie, when a quest is completed or a decisive action made), the writing of "data compilers" to create attributes for your objects in a script file (as I did with my Amiga project), creating a map/object/graphics editor, implementing a system of spells and using "reagents" to create them, character creation routines, NPC speech system, NPC artificial intelligence-- especially combat where NPCs intelligently arm themselves based on circumstances and resources at hand (ie, close range weaponry, spells, abilities, etc), animating objects. The list goes on. I have experience programming all of these things, and I plan to put that experience to use and create a CRPG for the PC. I am in college, so it will come slowly, but one will emerge. Why don't you explore these subjects with me, and let's create some good games.

If there is sufficient interest, I might write up more technique documents. That all remains to be seen. Give me your feedback. I want to discuss these things with people, because nobody seems to want to. I suspect they fear that people will rip-off their ideas. Let me state a fact, everyone: technical achievement does not make a great game. If everything I said here you can do better, you are at no particular advantage of making a better game than me. The quality lies in content. So quit worrying about someone stealing your techniques and algorithms, because even if they did, that doesn't mean they will undermine your success as a game designer.

SPEAK UP! I would love to hear alternate/better solutions to these programming puzzles.

And Now I'm Off, Dear Patsy

Please spread this to any technical forum and medium (unmodified, of course) that you see fit. I don't have access to any commercial nets, so uploading there would be appreciated. Spread me on the internet as well.

Happy creating!

Jason McIntosh

Greets to Ed Mackey and Roy Millican(both Amiga guys who probably won't ever see this).

And hello-nice-to-meet-you to Mark Feldman: where's PCGPE 2? I'm a willing contributor. :)

It's after 4am! I've got to go to bed!

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Date this article was posted to GameDev.net: 9/15/1999
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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