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What Is Spriting?

By Eugene P.
Updated May 16, 2024
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Spriting, in computer graphics, is the act of creating a two-dimensional (2D) image that is usually fairly small in comparison to the size of an average computer screen. These images are known as sprites and are frequently animated. A sprite was once the primary visual element in computer games, identifying a small square on the screen that was used to represent some element of the game, such as characters or objects. As three-dimensional (3D) games started to emerge, the usage of sprites in video games declined in favor of 3D models. Resurgence in the use of sprites, however, has been led by the development of mobile and handheld devices that lack the computing power and graphical hardware to run 3D graphics.

The act of drawing sprites is known as spriting. Sprites are usually limited in their resolution, traditionally because the resolution of televisions and computer monitors was very limited. The definition of what a sprite actually is varies, with some defining it as an image with transparency in the unused areas of the graphic. A broader definition is that it is any small image used in a 2D video game, in which case it also can be called a tile and could be designed to show a repeating pattern and act as a background.

When video games moved toward mainly 3D renderings, spriting continued primarily as an art form, sometimes tied to the nostalgia around 2D game characters. Spriting usually involves developing an image within a limited pixel field, building the image pixel by pixel instead of with larger graphical tools. In reference to early sprite artwork, some people who practice spriting limit the use of colors in the image to the original 16- or 256-color palette that was common on the first computer monitors and video game consoles.

In many video games, the sprites that represented characters, special effects and other elements were commonly animated. This involved drawing the same sprite over and over in a sequence of frames in which the animation was expressed through small, progressive movements. These were sometimes called sprite strips and could be saved in a single image file and loaded into a program, where they were cut into tiles and animated.

One of the challenges of spriting involved working within the limited pixel grid, sometimes as small as 16 pixels in width. The goal is to define a unique character within the limited space while, sometimes, leaving room for animation within the sprite tile. It is not uncommon for a sprite to have dozens of animation frames to depict it performing certain actions important to the video game in which it is included.

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