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The two main ways that computers create images are by using vector graphics and bitmap graphics. All the graphics that we ve used in this book so far have used vector drawing techniques. Vector graphics are made by plotting points and drawing connecting lines or curves between those points. When I first started using Flash, it was billed as a vector graphics animation tool, and although it s far more than that in its current form, it s still great for making vector art.
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Vector graphics are not the same as the mathematical Euclidean vectors that we ve been using in the previous chapters. Vector graphics are actually made using Euclidean vectors, but this is something that is largely hidden by the software that makes the graphics.
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If you ever did a connect-the-dots puzzle as a child, you already know how vector graphics work. The computer knows where point A is and where point B is, and it knows that it must draw a line between them. Those connecting lines are the vectors. Vectors can make any shape, like stars or spaceships, just by joining a lot of points together. If you have complex shapes, like butterflies, the points are very close together and the lines between them are very short. Curves are handled with a mathematical formula, usually for a Bezier curve. Vector graphics are handy because the only information stored about them is the minimum math required to plot the shape s points. This means that vector graphic file sizes tend to be very small. They contain just a few x and y coordinates, with perhaps the formula for a Bezier curve or two. Because they just exist as mathematical formulae, vector graphics can be scaled to any size without losing detail. If you have a small vector image of a butterfly the size of your palm, you can scale it to the size of an apartment building without losing detail or increasing the file size. Just multiply all the points equally by a big number. The numbers that make up the butterfly s points will be increased proportionately, but no new information will be added to the file. You ll end up with a huge butterfly, but the file size will be no bigger than the original. Small file size and seamless scaling are the two big advantages of vector graphics. But they have some drawbacks as well:
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Slow to render: Vector graphics are, at their heart, little mathematical formulae. Math is handled by your computer s CPU, and if the CPU is busy calculating points, it has less processing power to run other parts of your game. If you have a lot of vector graphics moving around the stage, there could be hundreds of thousands of points the CPU must calculate each frame, and that eats up a big part of your performance budget. Lack surface detail: Vector graphics just contain information about the points that make up the corners of the shape. They don t store any information about the inside area of the shape. For example, a vector graphic file of a triangle just contains the x and y coordinates of the triangle s three corners. This means that you can t change the color of individual pixels in the inner area of the triangle, because there s no way to access that information. These weak areas of vector graphics are where bitmap graphics show their strength. Bitmaps are rectangular grids made up of rows and columns of single pixels. (They re a map of bits. ) Each pixel in the grid contains a color, and by putting the right colors next to each other in the right cells in the grid, bitmaps create shapes. If vector graphics are connect-the-dots, then bitmap graphics are paint-by-numbers. Figure 5-1 shows how vectors and bitmaps represent the same shape differently.
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Figure 5-1. A vector graphic represents the triangle as points. A bitmap graphic represents it as a grid of pixels. Each pixel in a bitmap graphic can be accessed and changed, and this means that you have fine control over the color of even the smallest pixel. All digital photographs are bitmaps because this surface detail is essential for photographs. Because bitmaps don t need to calculate points, they don t have any mathematical overhead that drains CPU power from your game. But bitmaps have their own drawbacks: Lack information: Bitmaps are clueless: All they know is the height and width of their grid, and the color information for each pixel in the grid. They don t know anything about the kind of image or shape those pixels represent.
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Don t scale well: Because they don t understand their content, they can t be scaled. You can certainly try, but if you do, things get ugly, fast. The bitmap will mindlessly balloon the size of each pixel so that you end up with a terribly blocky, pixelated image. This might be cool for retro-style games, but not for almost everything else. Use a lot of memory: The vector triangle in Figure 5-1 will have a very small file size because the only information that s stored is its three corner points, the fill color, and a calculation four pieces of data and a simple formula that explains how to connect the points together. On the other hand, the bitmap triangle must store the color information of every single pixel in the grid. It s an 8-by-13 grid, totaling 104 bits of data to store. That makes it about 26 times bigger than the vector graphic. The bitmap is essentially spending on memory what it saves on CPU power. But the fact that you can access individual pixels of a bitmap makes up for all these shortcomings. It means you can do accurate collision detection between irregularly shaped objects. It also means you can control single pixels or groups of pixels inside shapes. Using bitmaps opens up realms of possibilities for our games that would be nearly impossible with vector graphics alone.
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