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In this technical article, Sherrod compares and contrasts the A8L8, DXT and 3Dc methods of texture compression for video games, also analyzing how each format stacks up against the others when dealing with decal textures and normal map images.

December 28, 2005

16 Min Read

Author: by Allen Sherrod

[Editor's note: this article on multiple texture compression techniques, written from a programming perspective, should ideally be read in conjunction with the recent article by Riccard Linde that discusses the issues of DXT compression from an artist viewpoint.]

As games become more and more visually complex, so does the artwork that is needed to create such detailed environments and objects. The more detail that goes into a piece of art, such as a texture image, then the more space that is needed for us to store such a resource in memory. With our resources becoming larger and more space-consuming we are required to have more bandwidth with our hardware in order to push our resources down the rendering pipeline. What we need is a way to take our high resolution artwork and reduce the memory requirements needed to store and work with the information.

In this article, we will look at a few different texture compression techniques that can be used to do just that. These techniques each have their own strengths and weaknesses, and it is important that we have a clear understanding of these before choosing a texture compression format that will be used for a set of texture images. Some formats only work with normal maps, while some work for both decals and normal maps. To further complicate matters, some formats can have an impact on the visual quality of an image resource, which (as we will see later on in this article) is not a good thing when dealing with normal maps.

Introduction to Texture Compression

The amount of artwork in a modern video game is tremendous when compared to games of the past. The texture images that are being used are higher in resolution, numerous in numbers and heavy with detail. Although graphics hardware has come a long way and offers us a lot of memory, we still don't have enough space to the point where we can load images without the concern and issues that arise with running out of memory.

Techniques like bump mapping, normal mapping, etc further complicate things because 1) the resolution of these images are often pretty large in size and 2) normal maps created from geometry data have to be huge in order to fully cover a model object with a decent level of quality. In order to make the most out of the memory we have available to use, we must use image compression in our video game applications. By compressing texture images we can reduce the amount of memory that each image requires on our hardware and, in some cases, we can use the compression techniques to increase the visual quality of normal map images. Using compressed textures can also boost an application's performance, since we are not required to send as much data down the pipeline.

The purpose of this article is to take a look at a few different texture compression techniques that can be used to reduce the size of the images that are used in a video game application. We will be particularly looking at the A8L8, DXT and 3Dc compression formats, as well as how each format stacks up against the others when dealing with decal textures and normal map images.

Each texture compression format that will be discussed in this article can be applied to both Direct3D (the API in the DirectX core that is responsible for rendering 3D graphics on the Windows OS) and OpenGL (a platform independent graphics library) with both graphics APIs having the ability to store texture images in these formats directly. In addition to that, we will also be looking at how we can use OpenGL to take uncompressed texture images loaded from a file and allow the API to perform the compression internally. We can then take that compressed data and save it out in a file so that it can be used later on (i.e. we can save the compressed image out so that we don't have to waste processing time compressing it again every time the application starts).

Texture Compression Algorithms

There are many texture compression algorithms that we can use in our games. As previously mentioned, this article will look at the DXT (S3TC) and 3Dc texture compression formats as well as the A8L8 format. Each format has its own strengths and weaknesses.

For example, the 3Dc compression format is great to use for normal maps, but the DXT compression formats are not so great when dealing with non-decal textures. The DXT1 compression format allows for a 6:1 compression ratio while the DXT2 / 3 / 4 / 5 and 3Dc formats allow for a 4:1 compression ratio. A8L8 is not technically compression but it can allow us to represent data using two components instead of three. For normal maps this means we can simply calculate the Z axis in a fragment program and save quite a bit of space when storing our image data. Below we will take a closer look at each format one by one starting with the DXT (S3TC) compression formats.

After we have a look at each of the compression formats described in this article, we will look at how we can generate the Z axis of a normal map in code. Not only does this allow us to only need the X and Y (red and green) axes values of the normal texel but it also means that we can be sure that all of our normals are unit-length. Since a unit-length normal has a length that is equal to 1, this is easy to accomplish.

DXT Compression Format

The DXT compression formats use a lossy compression that can reduce an image's size by a ratio of 4:1 or 6:1. The DXT formats are a standard part of the Direct3D API and are available for the OpenGL API through the ARB_texture_compression and GL_EXT_texture_compression_s3tc extensions.

The DXT compression formats are made up of DXT1, DXT2, DXT3, DXT4 and DXT5. DXT1 gives us the most compression by using 4-bits for each pixel but does not require an alpha channel (if it has one then it is 1-bit). DXT2/3 is the same as DXT1 but it uses an additional 4-bits for the alpha channel, thus doubling the size of the image. In the DXT2 format the data is pre-multiplied by the alpha channel while in the DXT3 it is not. The DXT4/5 formats are similar to the DXT2/3 formats with the exception of interpolating the alpha data when compressing the images. DXT2 / 3 / 4 / 5 can give us a compression ratio of 4:1 while DXT1 can give us a ratio of 8:1 / 6:1 (8:1 if we are not using the alpha).

The DXT compressions are good to use on decal texture images, especially those images that are high in resolution. The problem with the DXT compressions is that they were not designed with normal maps in mind, and can have horrible results when working with those types of images. Take a look at Figure 1 for a comparison of an uncompressed decal texture with a compressed decal texture. After looking at Figure 1, take a look at Figure 2 for a comparison of an uncompressed normal map and a compressed normal map.

Figure 1 (Left)Uncompressed image, (Right) compressed image.

Figure 2 (Left)Uncompressed normal map, (Right) compressed normal map.

As we can see from Figure 1 and Figure 2, the DXT compressions can do a pretty good job compressing decal texture data, but does not quite get the job done when trying to compress normal map data. This is due to the fact that the DXT compressions assume that the images that are being compressed have smooth changes (as we can see in the normal map, this is not always the case) and it using 16-bit reference color values which are not enough to represent all of the possible normal directions. Using specular lighting with normal maps compressed using a DXT format can increase the artifacts thanks to the power function used in the calculations (the power function amplifies the artifacts).

The DXT formats are good to use for non-normal map data but, with a few tricks, we can use DXT compression with them if we really needed to. These tricks include re-normalizing the normals for each texture fetch, placing the X axis of the normals in the alpha channel when using DXT5 compression (since the alpha channel is compressed separately, we can get better results than with the DXT1 compression), and generating the Z component and placing the X axis in the alpha channel when using DXT5 compression.

For the last trick, since the alpha channel is compressed separately and has 4-bits all to itself, we can store a higher range of values inside of it. By generating the Z axis we can ensure that we are working with unit-length normals and we don't fully need to limit ourselves to what can be stored in the compressed image data. This allows us to use the DXT5 compression format with normal maps at a higher quality than before, but it still has problems and is not perfect.

3Dc Compression Format

The 3Dc compression format is a 2 component format that was created by ATI as an effective means to compress texture data. The 3Dc can be used effectively to compress normal map data or to compress multiple pieces of data into a single texture. The problem with the DXT compression format is that DXT will cause heavy artifacts in the normal map image because it can not capture the small, fine detail (such as the curvature or small edges of the normal map) effectively. Since the purpose of normal maps is to capture that detail in an image, this can cause some huge artifacts in our rendered scene. These artifacts can be so bad that it can have a huge negative impact on the overall quality of the scenes that are being rendered.

The purpose of the 3Dc format is to compress our images while retaining the highest level of detail as we can. The 3Dc compression can allow us to compress images at a 4:1 ratio. That is like getting four images for the price of one! The compression is also hardware accelerated so there is very little performance impact on the applications using this technique when it comes time to uncompress the data. Take a look at Figure 3 for a comparison.

Figure 3 (Left) Uncompressed, (Middle) DXT5 compressed, (Right) 3Dc compressed.

A8L8 and V8U8 Formats

The A8L8 format is a two component 8-bit unsigned texture format (the signed version of the A8L8 is the V8U8) used in Direct3D. The OpenGL version of the A8L8 is exposed through the GL_HILO8_NV that is part of the NV_texture_shader3 extension. By only using two components we can not use this format for decal textures because there is no way for us to know what the third component (blue component) is supposed to be.

Since this format is not used for decal images, it is used to store luminance images with an alpha component (the luminance value is stored in the first component while the alpha is stored in the second) and it is also used to store normal map data. It can store a normal map by using the two components to store the X and Y axis of the normal for each texel. Since normals are unit-length (i.e. all components squared and added together equal 1) we can just use simple mathematics to figure out what the Z axis of a normal should be since we know what the X and Y axes are.

Although this format does not technically use compression it does allow us to take an uncompressed normal map and store it using much less space by dropping a component entirely. Since we are dropping a component from each texel we are going from 3 bytes per-texel to just 2 (i.e. 1/3 less space). In a fragment shader, we can just calculate the Z axis of a normal quickly and easily.

Generating the Z axis for a Normal Map

Since unit-length normal components all add up to equal 1 (R * R + G * G + B * B = 1.0) we can use some high school algebra to create a “solve for x” type equation as see below:

(A * A) + (B * B) + (X * X) = 1

For example if we know A squared (red component) is equal to 0.1 and if B squared (green component) is equal to 0.3 then the equation becomes:

0.1 + 0.3 + X = 1

0.4 + X = 1

X = 1 + -0.4

X = 0.6

In code (for example a fragment program) we can calculate the Z axis of any normal by using just the first two axes of the normal. This can be done like so:

Z * Z = 1 – X * X - Y * Y


Z = sqrt(1 – X * X – Y * Y)

Since the normal is always unit-length, the results of using our normal map in this format can give us better results if we choose not to renormalize normals in the fragment program each time the program is executed.


The added benefits to using texture compression are huge, and it is something worth looking into when working with video games. When working with 3Dc compressed textures we can get four times the detail out of our normal map images without sacrificing performance or requiring more memory on our hardware. The DXT compression formats are great to use when dealing with decal texture images, but are not the ideal choice for working with normal map images. Using DXT compression on normal maps will alter the normal data that was encoded in the image enough to the point to where our visual quality will be impacted for the worst. This is due to the format's lossy compression scheme, which is not anything we want to apply to normals in an normal maps.

If speed is an issue, we can also use the A8L8 and V8U8 formats. These formats require 2 bytes per-texel, which is twice as big as the DXT formats which require 1 byte for each texel. By not using the DXT formats, you do not have to worry about the lossy compression altering the original quality of the image, and the hardware does not have to spend time uncompressing the data when we try to access it in a fragment program. If A8L8 is used for normal maps then the Z (or blue) component of the image must be calculated in a fragment program.

Regardless of how we look at it, texture compression will probably always be something that we will have to work with as games become more and more complex and the artwork for our games increase. Which texture format that is used will depend on the type of images we are working with since some formats work much better for some types of images (for example decals vs. normal maps) than they do for others.

For more information about the texture compression formats described in this article, please check out the resources section at the end of this article. When using one of the formats described in this article keep in mind the follow:

  • When using A8L8 we can't use them for decals because there is no way to guess what the blue component is.

  • When linear filtering normal maps the filter can cause normals to become less than normalized. If this happens then we will have to renormalize the normals in a fragment program each time a texel if fetched.

  • Artifacts will arise when trying to use normal maps and a DXT compression format, especially with specular highlights.

  • Generating the Z component can increase the rendering quality.

  • The 3Dc compression format is better for normal maps than the DXT compression formats.

  • DXT1 gives us the highest compression ratio.

  • There is a performance gain when working with compressed textures because there is not as much data that needs to be sent down the pipeline.

  • Each format described in this article can work on OpenGL or Direct3D.


For more information on texture compression please feel free to take a look at aNVIDIA technical report titled Bump Map Compression on their developer website: http://developer.nvidia.com/object/bump_map_compression.html.

Additional information on the 3Dc texture compression algorithm can be found in an ATI white paper titled 3Dc White Paper: http://www.ati.com/products/radeonx800/3DcWhitePaper.pdf


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