Direct3D 11 - Device Creation

In this second tutorial, we give an overview of the Direct3D 11 graphics device and show how to initialize it properly for rendering. The Device object is the primary means of communicating with a virtual graphics adapter installed on the system, and will be used for all resource creation and the final rendering of 3D primitives. The sample will conclude by showing how to use the device to clear the background to a solid color.

The 3D Device

There are two integral interfaces used in Direct3D to perform rendering: the device and the swap chain. The device is a representation of a virtual adapter located on the user’s system. An adapter is usually implemented in hardware by a graphics card, but not always. For example, an adapter can be implemented in software, such as with the WARP performance renderer or the Direct3D reference rasterizer. The device provides a unified interface to access all of these adapters and uses them to render graphical images to one or more outputs.

From the DirectX SDK:

A swap chain is a set of two or more buffers that receive rendering data. The first buffer is the front buffer, and is immediately visible to the user. All other buffers form a chain of back buffers that are flipped between to perform smooth tear-free rendering. A swap chain is tied to a single window at creation time, and all of its drawing is clipped to that window by the operating system. The entire system of adapters, outputs, and swap chains is managed by the DirectX Graphics Infrastructure (DXGI), a layer beneath Direct3D that resides in kernel mode of the operating system.

A Direct3D 11 application must create at least one device and one swap chain in order to get anything visible on the screen. Since creating both a swap chain and a device at the same time is such a common operation, a single method is provided that can do both at once:

public static Result Device.CreateWithSwapChain(DriverType driverType, DeviceCreationFlags flags, 
    FeatureLevel[] featureLevels, SwapChainDescription swapChainDescription, out Device device, out SwapChain swapChain);

This method has several overloads depending on what settings you prefer to pass. There are two that take a DXGI Adapter object, and two that take a desired DriverType instead. When an adapter is passed, the driver type is inferred from the actual representation of that specific adapter. When a driver type is passed, the function will find the primary adapter that fits the requested type.

Enumerating a list of adapters installed on a system in order to pass one to D3D11 is a non-trivial process and will be covered in a future tutorial. Here, we will use the overload that takes a driver type:
Hardware devices are by far the most commonly used, since they provide the greatest performance and make use of dedicated graphics hardware in the user’s computer. CreateWithSwapChain also asks for a second set of flags detailing additional settings for the device. These are useful if you wish to enable the debug or reference layers, or if you wish to diagnose suspect results by disabling threading and other optimizations. Typically for the final product though, you’ll just pass DeviceCreationFlags.None.

Feature Levels

The third parameter to the device creation function is an array of feature levels. Feature levels provide a unified method by which Direct3D 11 can run on lower end hardware. Each feature level mandates a specific set of functionality that an adapter must expose, enabling application developers to reliably scale their applications depending on the hardware a user might have. The array allows you to specify a set of feature levels that you’d like Direct3D to try to use. It will try them in order and create a device with the first one that works. You can use the Device.GetSupportedFeatureLevel method to get the highest feature level currently supported by the primary adapter. If you don’t care to specify a set and just want to use the highest available, you can skip the parameter and use the less generic overload. Once the device has been created, you can access the Device.FeatureLevel property to see which feature level is currently active. The 10Level9 reference on MSDN gives in-depth details about exactly which portions of the API are available on which feature levels.

Swap Chain Setup

The fourth parameter asks for a SwapChainDescription, which specifies details of the swap chain that will be created. Direct3D has many such description structures that are used to create various API resources; this will be the first of many to come. Each member of the swap chain description must be filled out or the method may fail.

BufferCount – The number of buffers to create, including the front buffer. For a windowed device, the desktop is an implicit front buffer and doesn’t need to be taken into account. At least one back buffer should be created in order to enable flipping, as opposed to copying the video memory each frame.

Usage – The expected usage of the back buffers. Since we will be rendering to this, we will specify Usage.RenderTargetOutput. The only other valid member for a swap chain is ShaderInput, which lets you use the back buffer as an input for postprocessing effects.

OutputHandle – Designates the handle of the window to which the swap chain will be attached. This member can be used to tie the form to the swap chain via the form’s Handle property.

IsWindowed – Specifies whether to operate in fullscreen or windowed mode. The DirectX SDK recommends that you always create the swap chain in windowed mode and then manually transition to fullscreen in order to avoid mismatching the size of the output with the swap chain buffer, which can reduce performance.

ModeDescription – Allows you to specify the desired display mode of the swap chain. When starting in windowed mode, you typically set the size of the window as the resolution and pick a default refresh rate of 60 Hz and one of the standard back buffer formats. Passing zero for the width and height will automatically size the swap chain to the attached window.

ModeDescription = new ModeDescription(0, 0, new Rational(60, 1), Format.R8G8B8A8_UNorm)

                DXGI Surface Formats

DXGI exposes a number of different formats, and it can be confusing to know which one to pick. For the swap chain back buffers, you’re going to want a format that exposes all three components of the color data (R, G, and B). Typically, matching up with the desktop format is the best idea, but in this case we’re hard coding to one that we know is supported by most adapters (32 bits with each component being 8 bits). Each DXGI format has a suffix, in this case _UNorm, specifying the format of the data in addition to its size. Additionally, there are a few formats with an additional suffix of _SRGB. These formats are calibrated to produce colors that more correctly match the human eye color curve, so they may be preferrable for output formats.

SampleDescription – Allows you to specify multisampling parameters. The Count parameter lets you pick the number of samples per pixel, and the Quality parameter picks an antialiasing quality level.

Flags – Specifies additional flags that affect the behavior of the swap chain. Of interest is the AllowModeSwitch flag, which tells DXGI that the swap chain is allowed to adjust the display mode to a more optimal one if necessary.

SwapEffect – This determines how data in the back buffers are moved to the front buffer. Discard lets DXGI dump all back buffer data after it has been used, which allows it to do things in the most efficient manner. Sequential preserves the contents of the back buffer, which may be necessary if you wish to read its contents.

Typically many of these members are set after enumerating adapter and output information from DXGI. This allows you to pick values that you know will work on a given computer configuration. For now, however, we will simply pick default values in order to keep things simple:

var description = new SwapChainDescription()
    BufferCount = 1,
    Usage = Usage.RenderTargetOutput,
    OutputHandle = form.Handle,
    IsWindowed = true,
    ModeDescription = new ModeDescription(0, 0, new Rational(60, 1), Format.R8G8B8A8_UNorm),
    SampleDescription = new SampleDescription(1, 0),
    Flags = SwapChainFlags.AllowModeSwitch,
    SwapEffect = SwapEffect.Discard

Device Creation

Now that we have all the information we need to create the device and an associate swap chain, let us do so:

Device device;
SwapChain swapChain;
Device.CreateWithSwapChain(DriverType.Hardware, DeviceCreationFlags.None, description, out device, out swapChain);

If all goes well, we can now use the device and swap chain to perform any sort of rendering we’d like.

Device Context

New to Direct3D 11 is the concept of a device context, which now handles most of the drawing related functionality. Several contexts can be created and rendered to from different threads and then merged at the end of the frame, providing true multithreaded rendering capabilities. Each device has an implicit immediate context that we can use if we don’t care about multithreaded rendering. It can be accessed via the device’s ImmediateContext property:

var context = device.ImmediateContext;

DXGI Alt+Enter Functionality

DXGI has built in window-management functionality, which includes switching between full screen and windowed mode whenever Alt+Enter is pressed. Unfortunately, this default handling does not work properly with Winforms, so we need to disable it and handle the switch ourselves.

The base DXGI interface, called Factory, contains a method called SetWindowAssociation that will allow us to disable automatic alt+enter handling.

// prevent DXGI handling of alt+enter, which doesn't work properly with Winforms
using (var factory = swapChain.GetParent<Factory>())
    factory.SetWindowAssociation(form.Handle, WindowAssociationFlags.IgnoreAltEnter);

We are now free to handle this key combo ourselves if we wish. Doing so is easily accomplished by hooking the form’s keyboard event handler and flipping the swapChain.IsFullScreen flag.

// handle alt+enter ourselves
form.KeyDown += (o, e) =>
    if (e.Alt && e.KeyCode == Keys.Enter)
        swapChain.IsFullScreen = !swapChain.IsFullScreen;

Note that the key combo Alt+Enter will be interpreted as a missing menu mnemonic which will cause an annoying beep to occur when the app comes out of full screen mode. This can be solved by overriding the WndProc handler for the form and processing the WM_MENUCHAR message yourself. The RenderForm class already handles this detail for you if you choose to make use of it.

Setting Up the Graphics Pipeline

The 3D graphics pipeline is a process that takes input primitive data at one end, passes it through multiple stages that manipulate the data, and at the end rasterizes it to the screen. Along the way each stage can be configured and implemented via state settings and shaders.

The pipeline has grown more complex and more customizable with each passing Direct3D version. The current pipeline in its entirety is depicted in the following diagram:

From the DirectX SDK:

In this tutorial we will only focus on setting the bare minimum to get something visible on the screen, but we’ll come back to this time and time again to achieve all of our rendering and visual effects.

For our purposes, we will be configuring the Rasterizer Stage and the Output-Merger stage. For the former, we need to set a viewport specifying the bounds of our rendering. The Rasterizer Stage will use the viewport to transform vertices that are in homogenous clip space (-1 to 1 for X and Y and 0 to 1 for the Z range) into pixel coordinates. Typically, you set the viewport to be the size of the window to which you’ll be rendering:

var viewport = new Viewport(0.0f, 0.0f, form.ClientSize.Width, form.ClientSize.Height);

Additionally, we need to configure the output-merger state, which is responsible for combining all pixel data and sending it to the appropriate render targets. We need to specify at least one render target in order to render anything. In our case we want to use the swap chain’s back buffer as the render target, so we need to go about creating a resource view of the back buffer. In Direct3D 11, resources are typically manipulated using views instead of referring to the resource itself; this allows a single resource to be interpreted in different ways depending on how it is being used in that particular portion of the pipeline.

In order to create our render target view, we need to extract the back buffer from the swap chain. This can be done as shown, using the Resource.FromSwapChain method:

RenderTargetView renderTarget;
using (var resource = Resource.FromSwapChain<Texture2D>(swapChain, 0))
    renderTarget = new RenderTargetView(device, resource);

Typically we extract the back buffer as a 2D image texture, but there may be situations where some other data type may be more appropriate, which is why the method is generic.

Finally, we set the render target in the output merger stage:



We can now render to our device and see the output on the screen. In this tutorial we will be clearing the render target to a constant color and presenting the result to the screen. We do this inside the main loop so that it constantly updates and clears the screen. If you cover the window with another and then show it again, the constant clearing will ensure that no visual remnants of the occluding window will remain visible.

Clearing the render target is performed with the aptly named ClearRenderTargetView method:

public void ClearRenderTargetView(RenderTargetView view, Color4 color);

This method takes a view of our render target and a color to clear to. The SlimDX Color4 type can take input in a variety of forms, and has an implicit conversion defined from the System.Drawing.Color type as well, so there is a great deal of flexibility in how you specify your colors.

Once the target has been cleared, we use the swap chain’s Present method to flip the back buffer into front buffer memory.

public Result Present(int syncInterval, PresentFlags flags);

The syncInterval parameter lets us specify options to synchronize back buffer flipping with the vertical blanking period of the monitor, which prevents tearing. Specifying zero won’t perform any synchronization at all, which can increase frame rates but may produce artifacts. The flags parameter lets you specify a few rarely-used presentation settings. Consult the documentation for more information on them.

Our final render loop now looks like this:
MessagePump.Run(form, () =>
    // clear the render target to a soothing blue
    context.ClearRenderTargetView(renderTarget, new Color4(0.5f, 0.5f, 1.0f));
    swapChain.Present(0, PresentFlags.None);


Direct3D objects, and consequently SlimDX objects, need to be released when you are finished using them in order to clean up the associated memory and handles. Because Direct3D objects need to be released on the same thread on which they were created, SlimDX objects don’t implement a finalizer, and the user must call Dispose on each object manually.

// clean up all resources
// anything we missed will show up in the debug output

SlimDX tracks all live objects in the ObjectTable. You can access this class to get information about live objects. Additionally, when the program exits a list of all unreleased objects will get written to the debug output of Visual Studio. You can check this to make sure there aren’t any leaks in your program.


The work spent creating the device lets us have a nice cleared window and provides a base for future rendering operations.  A screenshot of our work is shown:

Not much interesting yet, but it’s getting there. In our next tutorial, we will work on rendering our first 3D primitive.

Download the source code for this tutorial: