With Direct3D 10, Microsoft made the most sweeping revision of its API since its creation. Admittedly, all those years of compatibility were beginning to handicap the evolution of its API and the goal was to provide a sound foundation for future developments. Yet, the new programming interface received a mixed reception from gamers and developers alike.
Microsoft is largely to blame. After hyping the merits of its API for several years before it was actually available, surely it had to expect a certain amount of discontent when gamers realized that the actual product didn’t really change much for them. Add to that the fact that the new API was written exclusively for Vista, and it was enough to generate animosity toward what had been presented as nothing less than a small revolution. As for developers, things were even more complicated. By associating Direct3D 10 and Vista, Microsoft greatly limited the number of existing computers that would be able to run a game using the API.
Further—and this is no secret for anybody—the PC as a gaming platform has lost ground in recent years with the emergence of the new consoles, to which several major developers from the PC world have now switched. id Software, Epic, and Lionhead are now all working on multi-platform projects, if not developing exclusively for consoles. And since both HD consoles on the market use a DirectX 9 GPU, developers have all the motivation they need to stick with the previous MS API.
So why are we talking about Direct3D 11 now? First of all, because Microsoft has finally lifted the veil from its API and because, after all, it’s still a newsworthy event—one that’ll give us an idea of what to expect from next year’s hardware. And what’s more, there’s a good chance that Direct3D 11 will prove to be a more important page in the history of the API than version 10 was. While Direct3D 10 was a complete revision, with all the risks that entails, Microsoft has now put enough distance between it and this new version to correct the problems raised by the first major overhaul of its API. So you could call Direct3D 11 a major update, albeit an incremental one. It re-uses all the concepts that were introduced with Direct3D 10, and is compatible with the preceding version and with the preceding generation’s hardware. And finally, it’ll be available not only on Windows 7, but also on Vista. So Microsoft has corrected the biggest problems with the preceding version and it’s being whispered among developers that some of them are skipping Direct3D 10 and moving directly to version 11 for their future games.
That rationale holds water for several reasons. A typical game’s development phase is between two and four years. So by the time a game that is just now starting its development phase is released, Direct3D 11 will be already well established for PCs, since it’ll run on all PCs shipped with Windows 7 and work on the great majority of PCs running Vista. And, it seems very probable that regardless of their release dates, future consoles will use Direct3D 11-compatible GPUs (or something close, like the Xenos in the Xbox 360, which is a superset of DirectX 9). Consequently, aiming at that level of functionality will enable developers to get the jump on the next generation of consoles. But we aren’t here to do a market study. What does the new API bring with it from a technical point of view?