The grabber


Commandline options

The grabber accepts a few different commandline options:

'-bpp' Sets the color depth, eg. -8, -16, -32.

'-WxH' Sets the screen resolution, eg. -320x200, -1024x768

'-windowed' Forces the grabber to start up in a window.

'-fullscreen' Forces the grabber to start up in fullscreen mode.

'-nosound' Disables audio output.

'-pkey' Use 'key' as the datafile password.

'filename.dat' Loads the named datafile.

Using the grabber

Various options can be set using the buttons and text fields at the top of the screen. You can edit the name of the datafile, the name of the header file for exporting object indexes (leave this blank if you don't want to output a header), and the prefix string for the header file definitions. You can change the grid settings for grabbing bitmaps, and alter the compression mode (see below). You can enable or disable backups: if this box is checked, the old version will be renamed to a .bak extension when datafiles are saved. You can also turn dithering on (this can improve the image quality when you reduce graphics from 15, 16, 24 or 32-bit color to 8-bit color and from 24 or 32-bit color to 15 or 16-bit color) and enable transparency preserving (this will ensure that the masked areas in bitmaps stay exactly the same through color conversion).

The contents of the datafile are listed in the box at the bottom left of the screen, and can be selected with the mouse or arrow keys. Multiple objects can be selected by holding down the shift or control keys while you click on the list or move the cursor. The selected object can be edited with commands from the Object menu, or using the shortcut menu produced by pressing Esc or right-clicking on an object. Double-clicking on an object performs a function which varies depending on the type of the object. Bitmaps are displayed full-screen (use the plus and minus keys to zoom in and out), samples and MIDI files are played, palettes are selected (meaning that they will be used when displaying and exporting bitmaps), and fonts can be edited by adding and removing specific character ranges.

Modifying objects

New objects can be created using the menus or by pressing Insert while the item list has the input focus. To make nested datafiles, create a FILE object (New/Datafile), and select it before inserting other objects.

To insert information into a datafile you must first create an object of the appropriate type, and then select the grab command (keyboard shortcut ctrl+G). For most objects this will bring up a file selector for you to select the file to read, but for graphic objects (bitmaps, RLE sprites, compiled sprites, and palettes) it will grab from the current contents of the image buffer, so you must previously have read a picture into this buffer with the File/Read Bitmap command (keyboard shortcut ctrl+G). You can use the mouse or arrow keys to select which portion of the image to grab. With the mouse, select the top left corner, click and hold the left mouse button, and move to the bottom right corner before releasing the button. Press the right mouse button to cancel. With the keyboard, use the arrow keys to select the top left corner, press Space or Enter, adjust the size with the arrow keys, and press Space or Enter again. By default the position will snap to a 16x16 grid, which can be adjusted by changing the values in the X-grid and Y-grid fields. Alternatively you can use the Box Grab command, in which case you should draw a bounding box in color #255 around your sprites, and can then just click once inside a box to grab the contents.

Note that palette data is not stored along with bitmap and sprite objects. To store the entire contents of a PCX or BMP file, you will need to create both bitmap and palette objects, and grab data into both of them. When you reload the datafile the bitmap will probably be displayed with the wrong palette. This can be corrected by double-clicking on the palette object, which will select its contents as the current palette, meaning that it will be used when displaying and exporting bitmaps.

The properties of the selected object are listed in the box to the right of the item list. These can be edited by double-clicking on one of the properties, and deleted by selecting one and pressing Del. You can insert new properties by pressing Insert while the property list has the input focus, or using the Object/Set Property command. Object names are stored as NAME properties, so the rename command is simply a shortcut for editing this property.

Bitmap grabbing

To simplify the process of grabbing several related images from a single bitmap (for example a set of frames which form an animation), you can use the File/Grab from Grid command. Like the normal bitmap grab command, this uses data from the image buffer, so you must read in a bitmap before you use it. You will then be able to adjust the grabbing parameters, enter a name for the new objects, and choose the type of object to create (bitmap, RLE sprite, or compiled sprite). Because several objects may be created, their names will be formed by adding a number to the end of the name you supply, for example if you enter "a_picture", the grabber will create the objects "a_picture000", "a_picture001", etc. There are two grabbing modes: using cutouts of color 255, and using a regular grid. The regular grid option simply divides the bitmap up into a set of equally sized tiles, using the specified grid size, and grabs each of these as a separate object. If you set the Skip Empties flag, the grabber will ignore tiles that don't contain any data (ie. those that are a single solid color). The color 255 option is more flexible. It expects the bitmap to contain information describing the position and size of each tile, in the form of a bounding box drawn in color 255. The most reliable way to do this is to fill all the image except the parts you want with color 255, but the grabber should be able to understand more complicated layouts, even if you simply draw color 255 lines along the top and left edges of the area you want to be grabbed. For truecolor images where color 255 is not particularly meaningful, use a cyan bounding box (maximum blue and green, zero red), with a single yellow (maximum red and green, zero blue) pixel in the top left corner of the box.


By default, the grabber will run in a 640x480 resolution, using the highest color depth possible on your graphics card. If you want to override this, you can specify an alternative color depth or resolution on the commandline, eg. "grabber -8" for a 256 color mode, "grabber -16" for 16 bit hicolor graphics, "grabber -320x200" to use VGA mode 13h, or "grabber 1024x768". Warning: editing datafiles that contain truecolor graphics is very slow in 256 color video modes, and the grabber is not really usable in resolutions lower than 640x400.

You can configure the grabber to use external tools for editing data, by setting some variables in the [grabber] section of the allegro.cfg file. These are in the form "type=command", where the type is a four letter object ID, and the command is whatever program you want to be invoked to edit this kind of data. For these variables to be seen, the allegro.cfg file must either be in the same directory as the grabber executable, or in the directory pointed to by your ALLEGRO environment variable. To invoke this feature, select the Shell Edit command or press ctrl+Z. The grabber will try to invoke the tool on the original version of the file if it knows where you grabbed the data from in the first place, or otherwise it will write the object out into a temporary file prior to editing.

Saving datafiles

Datafiles can be saved using any of three compression types, selected from the list at the top right of the grabber screen, or with the '-c0', '-c1', and '-c2' options to dat. With type 0, the data is not compressed at all. Type 1 compresses each object individually, while type 2 uses global compression over the entire file. As a rule, global compression will give better results than per-object compression, but it should not be used if you intend to dynamically load specific objects with the load_datafile_object() function or "filename.dat#objectname" packfile syntax.

There are also three strip modes for saving datafiles, selected with the File/Save Stripped command in the grabber, or using the '-s0', '-s1', and '-s2' options to dat. With zero stripping, all object properties are written to the datafile, which is normally what you will want. With strip mode 1, properties specific to the grabber (the ones describing the origins and dates of each object) are removed, which will marginally reduce the file size, but will prevent the update command from working. For the smallest possible file sizes, strip mode 2 removes all properties, including object names and any custom properties you have added. This level of stripping should obviously be used with extreme caution, although in some cases it may be possible to recover the object names even after they have been stripped out of the datafile. If the grabber and dat utilities cannot find any name properties in a datafile, they will look for a header (.h) file with the same name, and attempt to parse this to recover the names. This is far from foolproof, and will not work for nested datafiles, but in some situations it allows the names to be read back from the index definition header. In addition to those three strip modes, you can define properties to be kept, whatever the strip mode. For example, if you want to strip all properties but the NAME, this command will do the job:

   dat -s2 -s-NAME file.dat

The objects of the datafile can be sorted alphabetically by name. This is selected by the Sort checkbox in the grabber, or by using the '-n0' and '-n1' options to dat. With zero sorting, objects are listed in the order they were added to the datafile. With sort level 1, they are listed in alphabetical order according to their NAME property, including inside nested datafiles.

Updating datafiles

Both the grabber and the dat utility have an update command, which scans through the datafile checking if any objects have changed, and replacing those which are out of date. This depends on the origin and date properties which were set when the data was grabbed in the first place, so it won't work if these properties have been stripped out of the file. This command can be very useful if you build a datafile containing hundreds of objects grabbed from external bitmaps, and later go back and change some of these bitmaps. Rather than having to figure out which objects are out of date and then manually re-grab all the affected data, the update command will automatically refresh the modified objects.


Fonts can be read from GRX format .fnt files, 8x8 or 8x16 BIOS format .fnt files, and from bitmap images, or you can import a multiple-range Unicode font by writing a .txt script that specifies a number of different source files for each range of characters. The script file contains a number of lines in the format "filename start end", which specify the source file for that range of characters, the Unicode value of the first character in the range, and the end character in the range (optional, if left out, the entire input file will be grabbed). If the filename is replaced by a hyphen, more characters will be grabbed from the previous input file. For example, the script:

   ascii.fnt 0x20 0x7F
   - 0xA0 0xFF
   dingbats.fnt 0x1000

would import the first 96 characters from ascii.fnt as the range 0x20-0x7F, the next 96 characters from ascii.fnt as the range 0xA0-0xFF, and the entire contents of dingbats.fnt starting at Unicode position 0x1000.

When reading a font from a bitmap file, the size of each character is determined by the layout of the image, which should be a rectangular grid containing all the ASCII characters from space (32) up to the tilde (126), unless you are using the script mechanism described above, in which case the range(s) should match the one(s) specified in the .txt file. The spaces between each letter should be filled with color 255. If each character is sized exactly 8x8 or 8x16 the grabber will create a fixed size font, otherwise it will make a proportional font. Probably the easiest way to get to grips with how this works is to load up the demo.dat file and export the TITLE_FONT into a PCX file. Have a look at the resulting picture in your paint program: that is the format a font should be in...

Alpha channel

Bitmap and RLE sprites can store an alpha channel along with the color information, as long as they are in a 32 bit format. Alpha data can be read directly from 32 bit TGA files, or you can use the alpha channel commands (in the Object menu, or the right mouse button popup menu) to import a greyscale alpha image over the top of an existing object. This menu also contains options for viewing the alpha channel of the selected object, exporting the alpha data to a greyscale image file, and deleting the alpha data to leave only pure color information. You can also use the File menu to import an alpha channel over the top of a bitmap that you have loaded with the Read Bitmap command, after which the alpha information will be included when you next perform a Grab or Grab From Grid operation.

Datafile passwords

Datafiles can be encrypted with a password, by typing it into the "Password:" field in the grabber, or using the '-007 password' option to the dat utility. Passwords may be up to 256 characters in length, and are case sensitive. Encrypted files _cannot_ be read without the password, so please don't forget it and then come crying to me for help :-) To read an encrypted file into your program, call the packfile_password() function before load_datafile(). It is also a good idea to call packfile_password(NULL) afterwards, to set everything back to normal.