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I've heard about this concept, but what is it?

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up vote 12 down vote accepted

A texture atlas is simply a way to stuff multiple sprites into a single texture. You also will need an index into the texture so that you can find where each of the sprites are located.

The reason these are used is because it's more efficient to bind a texture once and change the UV values being used than to bind multiple textures for each sprite you draw.

Here is an article from Gamasutra on texture atlases that helped me a lot when I was first getting started

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NVidia provides a tool for assisting in the creation of texture atlases (developer.nvidia.com/object/texture_atlas_tools.html), or for those who wish to DIY, this thread on gamedev.net provides some example source: gamedev.net/community/forums/topic.asp?topic_id=392413 –  Jason Kozak Jul 17 '10 at 20:16
    
There are also Zwoptex (zwoptexapp.com) and TexturePacker (texturepacker.com), two Mac based tools that create texture atlases. Both are very good. –  TomA Oct 16 '11 at 9:42
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