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How to Use Tile Bitmasking to Auto-Tile Your Level Layouts

February 3, 2016 - Uncategorized

Crafting a visually appealing and varied tileset is a time consuming process, but the results are often worth it. However, even after creating the art, you still
have to piece it all together within your level! 

You can place each tile, one by one, by hand—or, you can automate the process by using bitmasking, so you only need to draw the shape of the terrain.

What is Tile Bitmasking?

What is tile bitmasking

Tile bitmasking is a method for automatically selecting the appropriate
sprite from a defined tileset. This allows you to place a generic placeholder
tile everywhere you want a particular type of terrain to appear instead of hand
placing a potentially enormous selection of various tiles. 

See this video for a demonstration:

(You can download the demos and source files from the GitHub repo.)

When dealing with multiple types of terrain, the number of different variations can exceed 300 or more tiles. Drawing this many different sprites is definitely a time-consuming process, but tile bitmasking ensures that the act of placing these tiles is quick and efficient.

With a static implementation of bitmasking, maps are generated at runtime. With a few small tweaks, you can expand bitmasking to allow for dynamic tiles that change during gameplay. In this tutorial, we will cover the basics of tile bitmasking while working our way towards more complicated implementations that use corner tiles and multiple terrain types.

How Tile Bitmasking Works


Tile bitmasking is all about calculating a numerical value and
assigning a specific sprite based on that value. Each tile looks at its
neighboring tiles to determine which sprite from the set to assign to itself. 

Every sprite
in a tileset is numbered, and the bitmasking process returns a number corresponding to the position of a sprite in the tileset. At runtime, the
bitmasking procedure is performed, and every tile is updated with the appropriate

Example terrain sprite sheet for tile bitmasking

The sprite sheet above consists of terrain tiles with all of the possible border configurations. The numbers on each tile represent the bitmasking value, which we will learn how to calculate in the next section. For now, it’s important to understand how the bitmasking value relates to the terrain tileset. The sprites are ordered sequentially so that a bitmasking value of 0 returns the first sprite, all the way to a value of 15 which returns the 16th sprite. 

Calculating the Bitmasking Value

Calculating this value is relatively simple. In this
example, we are assuming a single terrain type with no corner pieces. 

Each tile
checks for the existence of tiles to the North, West, East, and South, and each
check returns a Boolean, where 0 represents an empty space and 1 signifies the
presence of another terrain tile. 

This Boolean result is then multiplied by the binary directional value and added to the running total of the bitmasking value—it’s easier to understand with some examples:

4-bit Directional Values

  • North = 20 = 1
  • West = 21 = 2
  • East = 22 = 4
  • South = 23 = 8
Tile bitmasking example

The green square in the figure above represents the terrain tile we are calculating. We start by checking for a tile to the North. There is no tile to the North, so the Boolean check returns a value of 0. We multiply 0 by the directional value for North, 20 = 1, giving us 1*0 = 0

For a terrain tile surrounded entirely by empty space, every
Boolean check returns 0, resulting in the 4-bit binary number 0000 or 1*0 + 2*0
+ 4*0 + 8*0 = 0
. There are 16 total possible combinations, from 0 to 15, so the
1st sprite in the tileset will be used to represent this type of
terrain tile with a value of 0.

Tile bitmasking example
A terrain tile bordered by a single tile to the North
returns a binary value of 0001, or 1*1 + 2*0 + 4*0 + 8*0 = 1. The 2nd
sprite in the tileset will be used to represent this type of terrain with a
value of 1.
Tile bitmasking example

A terrain tile bordered by a tile to the North and a tile to
the East returns a binary value of 0101, or 1*1 + 2*0 + 4*1 + 8*0 = 5. The 6th
sprite in the tileset will be used to represent this type of terrain with a
value of 5.

Tile bitmasking example

A terrain tile bordered by a tile to the East and a tile to
the West returns a binary value of 0110, or 1*0 + 2*1 + 4*1 + 8*0 = 6. The 7th
sprite in the tileset will be used to represent this type of terrain with a
value of 6.

Assigning Sprites to Tiles

After calculating a tile’s bitmasking value, we assign the appropriate sprite from the tileset. This final step can be performed in real time as the map loads, or the result can be saved and loaded into your tile editor of choice for further editing.

Tile bitmasking how tiles are assigned based on the terrains shape

The figure on the left represents a 4-bit, single-terrain tileset as it would appear sequentially on a tile sheet. The figure on the right depicts how the tiles look in-game after they are placed using the bitmasking procedure. Each tile is marked with its bitmasking value to show the relationship between a tile’s order on the tile sheet and its position in the game. 

As an example, let’s examine the tile in the upper-right corner of the figure on the right. This tile is bordered by tiles to the West and Souh. The Boolean check returns a binary value of 1010, or 1*0 + 2*1 + 4*0 + 8*1 = 10. This value corresponds to the 11th sprite in the tile sheet.

Tileset Complexity

The number of required directional Boolean checks depends on
the intended complexity of your tileset. By ignoring corner pieces, you can use
this simplified 4-bit solution that only requires four directional binary checks. 

what happens when you want to create more visually appealing terrain? You will
need to deal with the existence of corner tiles, which increases the amount of
sprites from 16 to 48. The following 8-bit bitmasking example requires eight Boolean
directional checks per tile.

8-Bit Bitmasking with Corner Tiles

For this example, we are
creating a top-down tileset that depicts grassy terrain near the ocean. In this
case, our ocean exists on a layer underneath the terrain tiles. This allows us
to use a single-terrain solution, while still maintaining the illusion that two
terrain types are colliding. 

Once the game is running and the bitmasking
procedure is complete, the sprites will never change. This is a seamless, static
implementation of bitmasking where everything takes place before the player
ever sees the tiles.

Introducing Corner Tiles

We want the terrain to be
more visually interesting than the previous 4-bit solution, so corner pieces
are required. This extra bit of visual complexity requires an exponential
amount of additional work for the artist, programmer, and the game itself. By
expanding on what we learned from the 4-bit solution, we can quickly understand
how to approach the 8-bit solution.

A sprite sheet of an example tileset

is the complete sprite sheet for our ocean-side terrain tiles. Do you notice
anything peculiar about the number of tiles? The 4-bit example from earlier
resulted in 24 = 16 tiles, so this 8-bit example should surely result in 28 = 256
tiles, yet there are clearly fewer than that there. 

While it’s true that this 8-bit bitmasking procedure results in 256 possible
binary values, not every combination requires an entirely unique tile. The
following example will help explain how 256 combinations can be represented
by only 48 tiles.

8-bit Directional Values

  • North West = 20 = 1
  • North = 21 = 2
  • North East = 22 = 4
  • West = 23 = 8
  • East = 24 = 16
  • South West = 25 = 32
  • South= 26 = 64
  • South East = 27 = 128
Tile bitmasking 8-bit example

Now we’re making eight Boolean directional checks. The center tile above is bordered by tiles to the North, North-East, and East, so this Boolean check returns a binary value of 00010110 or 1*0 + 2*1 + 4*1 + 8*0 + 16*1 + 32*0 + 64*0 + 128*0 = 22.

Tile bitmasking 8-bit example

The tile on the left above is similar to the previous tile, but now it
is also bordered by tiles to the South West and South East. This Boolean
directional check should return a binary value of 10110110, or 1*0 + 2*1 + 4*1 + 8*0 + 16*1 + 32*1 + 64*0 + 128*1 = 182

This value is
different from the previous tile, but both tiles would actually be visually
identical, so it becomes redundant. 

To eliminate the redundancies, we add an extra
condition to our Boolean directional check: when checking for the presence of
bordering corner tiles, we also have to check for neighboring tiles in the four cardinal directions (directly North, East, South, or West). 

For example, the tile to the
North-East is neighbored by existing tiles, whereas the tiles to the South-West
and South-East are not. This means that the South-West and South-East tiles are not included in the bitmasking calculation. 

With this new condition, this Boolean check returns a binary value of
00010110 or 1*0 + 2*1 + 4*1 + 8*0 + 16*1 + 32*0 + 64*0 + 128*0 = 22 just like
before. Now you can see how the 256 combinations can be represented by only 48

Tile Order

Another problem you may notice is that the values calculated
by the 8-bit bitmasking procedure no longer correlate to the sequential order
of the tiles in the sprite sheet. There are only 48 tiles, but our possible calculated
values range from 0 to 255, so we can no longer use the calculated value as a
direct reference when grabbing the appropriate sprite. 

What we need, therefore, is a data
structure to contain the list of calculated values and their corresponding tile
values. How you want to implement this is up to you, but remember that the
order in which you check for surrounding tiles dictates the order in which your
tiles should be placed in the sprite sheet. 

For this example, we check for
bordering tiles in the following order: North-West, North, North-East, West,
East, South-West, South, South-East. 

Below is the complete set of bitmasking values
as they relate to the positions of tiles in our sprite sheet (feel free to use
these values in your project to save time):

Multiple Terrain Types

All of our previous examples assume a single terrain type, but what if we introduce a second terrain to the equation? We need a 5-bit bitmasking solution, and we need to define our two terrain types. We also need to assign a value to the center tile that is only counted under specific conditions. Remember that we are no longer accounting for “empty space” as in the previous examples; tiles must now be surrounded by another tile on all sides.

Tile bitmasking 8-bit example with multiple terrain types

The above figure shows an example with two terrain types and no corner tiles. Type 1 always returns a value of 0 whenever it is detected during the directional check; the center tile value is calculated and used only if it is terrain type 2. 

The center tile in the above example is surrounded by terrain type 2 to the North, West, and East, and by terrain type 1 to the South. The center tile is terrain type 1, so it is not counted. This Boolean check returns a binary value of  00111, or  1*1 + 2*1 + 4*1 + 8*0 + 16*0 = 7.

Tile bitmasking 8-bit example with multiple terrain types

In this example, our center tile is terrain type 2, so it will be counted in the calculation. The center tile is surrounded by terrain type 2 to the North and West. It is also surrounded by terrain type 1 to the East and South. This Boolean check returns a binary value of  10011, or  1*1 + 2*1 + 4*0 + 8*0 + 16*1 = 19 .

Dynamic Implementation

The bitmasking calculation can also be performed during gameplay, allowing for real-time changes in tile placement and appearance. This is useful for destructible terrain as well as games that allow for crafting and building. The initial bitmasking procedure is mandatory for all tiles, but any additional dynamic calculations should only be performed when absolutely necessary. For example, a destroyed terrain tile would trigger the bitmasking calculation only for surrounding tiles.


Tile bitmasking is the perfect example of building a working system to aid you in game development. It is not something that directly impacts the player’s experience; instead, this method of automating a time-consuming portion of level design provides a valuable benefit to the developer. To put it simply: tile bitmasking is a quick way to make the game do your dirty work, allowing you to focus on more important tasks.

Source: Photoshop | Tuts