Add a new archive format to Camoto

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This tutorial will explain how to add a new archive file format to Camoto, specifically to libgamearchive.


  • You can compile the git version of libgamearchive (Windows instructions)
  • You can run the libgamearchive tests ("make check" under Linux, libgamearchive-tests.exe under Windows cmd.exe)
  • If you're on Windows, you have installed ANSICON (download) so that the errors from the test code can be coloured
    • Without this you will only see a mass of ANSI escape sequences making it impossible to work out what the problem is.
    • Make sure you don't install ANSICON into %windir%\system32 on a 64-bit machine, otherwise it won't work when running 32-bit apps (because this folder gets redirected to %windir%\SysWOW64 where ANSICON can't be found.) Putting it in %windir% should be fine.
  • The file format has been documented on the ModdingWiki! File formats are not added to libgamearchive unless they are fully documented on the ModdingWiki.

Select a format to copy

Most archive formats are very similar, so instead of reinventing the wheel, a new format is always implemented by selecting a similar existing format, copying the code, then making whatever changes are specific to the new format. The closer the format you copy to your new one, the less code you will have to change.

When finding a similar format, don't worry about technical things like which offsets the fields are at, but look for similar features, such as:

  • Is the FAT (File Allocation Table; the table of filenames and offsets/sizes) in the archive itself, or is it in a separate file?
    • If the FAT is in the archive file, is it at the start, the end, or is there an entry before each subfile?
  • Is the FAT a fixed length or does it expand as files are added?
  • Does the format store both file offsets and sizes, or just one? Which one?
  • Does the format store filenames or not?

Once you have answers to these questions, it should be easy to find a similar archive format to base the new one on. Don't worry if you can't find a good match, it just means you'll have to write a little more code. Just pick a format that has the most features in common. The list above is in order of difficulty, so the first items are harder to change but last items are very easy - so if you can't get a perfect match, try to at least find a match for the first point or two.

If you've added your new format to the ModdingWiki and correctly filled out the article's infobox, then the page will have been automatically added to a handful of categories - you can browse these categories to find similar formats. Alternatively for simple formats, the follow table may help:

Priority 1
FAT location
Priority 2
FAT size
Priority 3
FAT content
Archive start Archive end Archive embedded External file Variable Fixed Offset Size Filenames
Tick.png - - - Tick.png - Tick.png Tick.png Tick.png pod-tv
Tick.png - - - Tick.png - Tick.png Tick.png - res-boppin
Tick.png - - - Tick.png - Tick.png - Tick.png lbr-vinyl
Tick.png - - - Tick.png - - Tick.png Tick.png grp-duke3d
Tick.png - - - - Tick.png Tick.png Tick.png Tick.png vol-cosmo
- Tick.png - - Tick.png - Tick.png Tick.png Tick.png dat-mystic
- Tick.png - - Tick.png - - Tick.png Tick.png epf-lionking
- - Tick.png - Tick.png - - Tick.png Tick.png dat-wacky
- - Tick.png Tick.png Tick.png - Tick.png Tick.png Tick.png bnk-harry
- - - Tick.png Tick.png - Tick.png Tick.png - dat-hocus
- - - Tick.png - Tick.png - Tick.png - gd-doofus

For more complex formats, the following existing types may serve as a helpful reference:

  • bpa-drally - FAT at start of archive, encrypted filenames
  • dat-got - encrypted FAT at start of archive, compressed files
  • rff-blood - encrypted FAT at end of archive, encryption key is based on FAT offset, so entire encrypted FAT changes content as files are added/removed. Filenames stored as "DATONE" instead of "ONE.DAT" so need transforming. First 256 bytes of files optionally encrypted.
  • dat-bash - no filename extensions, filetype codes used instead. Many files have the same name and differ only by filetype code. Filenames translated to convert codes into made-up filename extensions.
  • pod-tv - has an 80-character description in the header made available as an "attribute" which can be viewed and changed.

Once you have selected an existing format to copy, you can begin. For this tutorial we will be basing the new archive format on the Duke Nukem 3D .grp format, referred to as grp-duke3d in libgamearchive, and we will be creating a new format called new-example.

Pick a name

Where possible, name your format as the most common or unique filename extension (e.g. grp), a dash, and then either the first or the most well-known game that uses the format - hence grp-duke3d. We could have used grp-sw in reference to Shadow Warrior but that short name isn't very descriptive, and likewise grp-redneckrampage is a bit long, so you will likely have to bend the rules a little to come up with a memorable and easily identifiable name. Specifying the game along with the filename extension is important, as many games share the same extension, such as dat-bash, dat-wacky, dat-hocus, and so on.

Have a look at the other format identifiers and use your best judgement. You can run gamearch --list-types to see a list of them all.

You'll also have to choose a class name suffix for your format, ideally matching the format identifier. There are ArchiveType and Archive classes that the format will implement, and these have to be named uniquely. The grp-duke3d format uses the GRP_Duke3D suffix, so its classes are called ArchiveType_GRP_Duke3D and Archive_GRP_Duke3D.

Create a test

The first step in adding a new file format is to create test code for it. This is simple to do, and means you can simply tweak your code and run the test until it passes with no errors, and then your new archive format will be ready to use. The tests themselves are already written, all you have to do is provide the content of the archive file after certain operations have been performed, just like you were looking at the file in a hex editor. The tests will then do things like add, remove and rename files in a virtual (in-memory) archive, and make sure the result comes out the way your test code says it should. If it does, your code works. If not, either your archive code is broken or you made a typo in your test code :-)

Start by finding the test code for your base format, and create copies of the files, using your new format code instead. Here we are duplicating grp-duke3d to create new-example, so we will make the following duplicate files (relative to the libgamearchive root folder):

  • tests/test-fmt-grp-duke3d.cpptests/test-fmt-new-example.cpp

The new file needs to be included in the build system, so edit tests/, find the line for grp-duke3d and copy it as appropriate, remembering to keep the list somewhat in alphabetical order:

tests_SOURCES += test-fmt-new-example.cpp

If you're using Visual Studio, you'll also have to add the new file to the libgamearchive-tests project. (Somewhat confusingly the file will be found inside the folder for the libgamearchive project, even though you're adding it to the different libgamearchive-tests project. This is fine, it simply allows the two projects to share the same set of source code files.)

Now you can edit the new .cpp file and change all the references to grp-duke3d to new-example. You'll also need to change the name of the test class, i.e. test_grp_duke3d becomes test_new_example, and at the very end of the file, the IMPLEMENT_TESTS line also has to be changed, being careful to note that this line refers to the name of the test class so it should be new_example with an underscore rather than a hyphen.

Now you can edit the class constructor, and set the appropriate variables. You can leave out most of them as the defaults are sensible, however here is a list of what you can set if you need to: (you should remove any lines that set variables to the default value)

Variable Default value Purpose
this->type N/A Name of the format being tested, must be set. Matches the return value of ArchiveType::code()
this->skipInstDetect None This is a list of other archive formats which misdetect the new file format as one of them. This is a last resort - if it happens, the other archive's autodetection routines should be fixed. This is a vector, so values should be added with this->skipInstDetect.push_back("broken-format");
this->lenMaxFilename 12 Maximum usable number of characters in the filename, not including any terminating bytes. The default of 12 allows a DOS 8.3 style name, including the period. This only needs to be changed if your format has a different maximum length of a filename. If your format does not support filenames, this should be set to -1.
The filenames to use when adding/renaming/removing files. You only need to change these if for some reason your archive format cannot store these filenames as-is. If your archive format has no filenames at all, there is no need to set these to blank, just ignore them.
this->filename_shortext "TEST.A" A filename with an extension less than three chars. Again, this only needs to be changed if your new archive format cannot store the default filename.
this->insertAttr EA_NONE Attributes to set when inserting new files. If your format supports compression then you probably want to set this to EA_COMPRESSED. If compression/encryption is optional in your format, then ideally you would create two tests, one that uses compression/encryption and one that is plaintext.
"This is one.dat"
"This is two.dat"
"This is three.dat"
"This is four.dat"
"Now resized to 23 chars"
Content for each file. This should only be changed if your archive format cannot contain arbitrary data files.
Size of the first file, in bytes, after it has been enlarged (largeSize) and shrunk (smallSize). If files are compressed, the _unfiltered variables are the decompressed size, and the others are the compressed size.
this->attributes empty Add an Attribute to this for each attribute the format supports, if any. For example:
Attribute comment;
comment.type = Attribute::Type::Text;
comment.textValue = "This is the comment field";
comment.textMaxLength = 123;

You should supply values for all attributes the format supports. The file content you supply for each test function should have these attributes in place, as the test code will load your content and retrieve each attribute, and fail the test if it doesn't match the data supplied here.

this->outputWidth 16 Width (in bytes) of the hex dump shown on test failure. This is purely to assist debugging, as sometimes it's easier to see what's going on if the hex dump is a different width, e.g. the size of a whole FAT entry. Only change this for good reason - if you just like wider hex dumps, then edit tests/tests.cpp and change the default instead. This should rarely need to be changed for archive files - it was added primarily for game maps so the hex dump could match the level width.

Go to the addTests() function and leave the first (c00) isInstance() call intact, but comment out all the other isInstance() and any invalidContent() calls, as these will be written last, once your format has passed all the other tests. For the moment, update the other functions with the new archive format's content. For example, the initialstate() function for grp-duke3d looks like this:

	"KenSilverman"      "\x02\x00\x00\x00"
	"ONE.DAT\0\0\0\0\0" "\x0f\x00\x00\x00"
	"TWO.DAT\0\0\0\0\0" "\x0f\x00\x00\x00"
	"This is one.dat"
	"This is two.dat"

Here you can see that two files are present. ONE.DAT is first, and TWO.DAT is second, with the content following. You should replace this content with whatever your archive format would look like if it too had only two files, with the same name, content, and order. Note that this format stores the number of files in the archive (the field with \x02 directly following "KenSilverman") however your format may not store this field, in which case it is fine to remove it completely.

Note that the splitting of the content into multiple strings is purely for readability, and you can choose to split the data as much or as little as you like. I choose to split them at approximate field boundaries to make it easier to work out which byte belongs to which field. You can also add comments, but try to avoid documenting large numbers of fields - this is what the ModdingWiki is for!

Proceed through the remaining functions, updating them to reflect your own archive's content at each stage. Pay close attention to the changes, and be sure to calculate offsets correctly. Avoid the temptation to compute values in code, as this risks the same bug appearing in both the main code and test code, where it will never be detected. Calculate everything manually and hard code it! (But only for the test code!)

Once you have done this, you are ready to start implementing the format.

Implement the format handler

Copy the files for your base format again:

  • src/fmt-grp-duke3d.cppsrc/fmt-new-example.cpp
  • src/fmt-grp-duke3d.hppsrc/fmt-new-example.hpp

Edit src/ as you did with the test code and create two new lines, one for the new .cpp and one for the new .hpp.

You will also have to edit src/main.cpp and make the following changes:

  • Add an #include line for your .hpp file
  • Add your ArchiveType class name to the FormatEnumerator list (using whatever name you chose previously instead of ArchiveType_GRP_Duke3D)

Without this your code may compile but you'll get an error saying the archive format could not be found.

Now edit your new .cpp and .hpp files, and make the following changes:

  • Replace grp-duke3d with new-example
  • Replace the Archive and ArchiveType class names (ArchiveType_GRP_Duke3D and Archive_GRP_Duke3D) with new unique names (matching what you put in main.cpp)
  • Update the ArchiveType functions as appropriate (i.e. put the correct description, list of games, etc.)
  • Update the isInstance function to correctly identify files in this format. You may wish to just comment the code out and make this function return DefinitelyNo while you implement the rest of the code, and then return to implement this function last - whichever you prefer.
    • Don't make it return DefinitelyYes unconditionally during testing as it's too easy to forget to go back to implement it later!
    • If you want to use gamearch to inspect some real archives in your new format during testing, before you have implemented isInstance(), you'll have to manually specify the format and force it to open, e.g. gamearch -t new-example --force
  • Update the Archive constructor (Archive_GRP_Duke3D::Archive_GRP_Duke3D()) to correctly read the contents of the new archive format.

Update the remaining functions as necessary. Some functions are optional and can be removed entirely, while others must be present and return without doing anything if they are not needed. There may be other functions you need that are not implemented in the base archive format you are working from, so it is a good idea to look through a couple of other file formats if you need a feature you can't seem to find easily.

When you think you are done, compile the code and run the tests like this:


Perform the compile. Adjust -j8 as appropriate for the number of CPUs in your system.

 make -j8 check

If the tests fail, you can examine the test log. Personally I find it easier to do all this in one command, like this:

 rm tests/tests.log ; make -j8 check ; if [ -f tests/tests.log ]; then cat tests/tests.log; fi

This will compile everything and stop if there was a compilation error, otherwise if everything compiled successfully it will run the tests and print the test log if there were any failures.


Build the libgamearchive-tests project, and from the command-line run the resulting libgamearchive-tests.exe file.

You will probably need to make the console window wider to avoid the test output wrapping to the next line. You can't resize a console window wider by dragging, but you can by running this command:

   mode con cols=132    # Set console window to be 132 characters wide, adjust as needed

If the output looks all messy and there are no colours, make sure you have installed ANSICON correctly (see #Prerequisites above.)

Keep working on your code and fixing the errors until they run through without any problems. Remember to ignore any isInstance() errors at this stage as those functions haven't been implemented yet.

Once everything is working fine, go ahead and implement isInstance(). Try to keep the function fairly lean, as it should be able to identify an archive format as quickly as possible, and if someone opens a folder of 100 files and your isInstance() function has to run along with everyone else's 100 times, you want it to be quick! You should only throw exceptions in this function for I/O errors - problems with the file format (e.g. values out of range, file too short) should never throw exceptions. If the problem is bad enough you should return a value like DefinitelyNo, indicating that you cannot handle the file format.

The purpose of this function is to identify an file format, not to verify it. You may see some formats scanning for invalid characters in filenames or other lengthy tests, but this is only because those file formats don't have a signature. If you are lucky enough to have an unambiguous signature in your file format, then simply check that and be done.

Finalise the tests

The last thing to do is to go back to the test code, and uncomment the isInstance() calls. You should update these so that they trigger all the conditions in your archive handler's isInstance() function, to verify that it correctly identifies and rejects files appropriately.

Run the tests again, and if you get any errors about your new hander accidentally identifying other archive format as its own, go back to your isInstance() function and add more tests and conditions so that there are no false detections.

invalidContent() tests

You may also want to add some invalidContent() tests after the isInstance() ones. These tests are for files that are in the correct file format but are corrupted in a manner that is likely to cause problems upon opening, such as triggering infinite loops or allocating too much memory. The tests ensure your code rejects the corrupted file instead of trying to load it and crashing. The tests supply sample archive files that pass your archive handler's isInstance() function but cause an exception to be thrown when opening the file. See test-fmt-grp-duke3d.cpp for an example where the signatures all match but there are over a billion files in the archive, which should never happen. Not all file formats will have invalidContent() tests, as some file formats cannot be corrupted in a way that will cause critical errors.

Note that technically the grp-duke3d handler doesn't need the invalidContent() test, because isInstance() could check to make sure the archive file is large enough to hold that many FAT entries, and if not, report that it isn't a .grp file. The distinction was made because .grp files have a signature which on its own is enough to positively identify a file in this format. Because of this, only this signature is checked by isInstance(), allowing corrupted data to sneak through undetected. Other file formats with no signatures typically rely on verifying all the structures within the archive in order to positively identify the format, so in these cases any corrupted data would never make it past isInstance(). These formats are the ones that are less likely to have invalidContent() tests.

Submit a patch

Generating a patch is beyond the scope of this article (read up on git) however here are some hints:

  • Update the README with your new file format
  • Add the README, new files, and other changes to a single commit and push to your preferred repository (e.g. fork the project on GitHub and push there)
  • Send a pull request to me via GitHub and I will review your change and hopefully merge it into the main branch


  • The Archive::isInstance() function is not a gate-keeper, but an autodetection function. This means that if you report DefinitelyNo (a file is definitely not in the format you are implementing) it's still possible for someone to attempt to open it with your archive handler anyway by passing the --type and --force parameters to gamearch. Your Archive constructor should be prepared to deal with this and throw exceptions (not crash) if any values are so far out of range that you cannot continue or return a partial read. You must not check any signatures here and only abort if there is a truly unrecoverable error, because the idea behind this is that if someone obfuscates the signature but leaves the file format intact, you can still open the archive by manually specifying the file format.