Windows Phone 7 : Using Transparency and Alpha Blending (part 1) - XNA's Built-In Blend States

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XNA offers us support for dealing with transparency when we render our graphics. We can achieve various effects with this, such as removing transparent parts of an image or drawing an image so that it is semitransparent, allowing the graphics behind to show through. This is known as alpha blending.

In this section we'll look at the available alpha blending options and learn how you can customize them for your games.

1. Enabling and Disabling Alpha Blending

In order to take advantage of alpha blending, we need to instruct XNA to use a blend state object. This contains information that XNA will use to determine exactly how to mix the pixels of the objects that it is drawing with the pixels that are already present on the screen.

This might be as simple as determining whether to completely replace an existing pixel or leave it with its current color, or it might involve a blend of the existing pixel and the pixel from the rendered object.

The active BlendState object can be found in the GraphicsDevice.BlendState property. The object can be interrogated, but its properties cannot be updated: just like the SamplerState objects we saw in the last section, a BlendState object's properties all become read-only once it has been set into the GraphicsDevice.

To alter the active BlendState, we must create a new BlendState object, configure its properties, and only then pass it to the GraphicsDevice, as can be seen in Listing 1. Once again, it is important to avoid doing this inside your Update or Draw functions: any required BlendState objects should instead be created just once during initialization and then reused as and when needed.

Example 1. Creating and activating a new BlendState object
// Create a new BlendState object
BlendState blendState = new BlendState();
// Set blend state object properties
// Set the object into the GraphicsDevice
GraphicsDevice.BlendState = blendState;

To disable alpha blending, the BlendState property should be set to BlendState.Opaque, as shown in Listing 2. There are two reasons why it is very important to remember to disable alpha blending as soon as you have finished with it. First, alpha blending has a higher processing overhead on the graphics hardware than opaque rendering because it needs to consider the pixels already on the screen as well as those being rendered. Second, having blending active when you are not expecting it to be can produce very confusing results in your game, causing objects to become transparent or even disappear.

Example 2. Disabling alpha blending
// Switch to the Opaque blend state
GraphicsDevice.BlendState = BlendState.Opaque;

2. XNA's Built-In Blend States

There are some transparency effects that are more frequently used within games than others, and to simplify using these effects XNA provides a series of static objects whose properties reflect this. Before we get into the complexities of how alpha blending actually works, let's take a look at some of these states and describe the purpose and use of each. We will look at how the blend states work under the covers later in this section.

Throughout this section we will describe colors and alpha values as float values rather than as integers. This means that they will always be in the range of 0 to 1, rather than 0 to 255. The reason for this will become apparent later in the section.

You can experiment with these blend states by opening the AlphaBlending example project and changing the state that is set at the end of the Initialize function.

2.1. Opaque

The BlendState.Opaque reference that we saw in Listing 2 is not an enumeration as it might at first appear, but is in fact one of the built-in blend state objects. Opaque is a static property on the BlendState class that returns a BlendState object configured with alpha blending disabled.

With opaque blending active, every pixel rendered from the source texture will be written to the screen so that it entirely replaces the content that is already present.

Figure 1 shows the Grapes texture rendered using the opaque blend mode.

Figure 1. Overlapping textures rendered with the Opaque blend state

2.2. AlphaBlend

A particularly useful blend state is AlphaBlend, which is actually the mode that we were using with sprites when an alpha channel or a color key was present. This mode reads the alpha value from the source texture and uses it to determine how opaque the pixel should be when rendered on top of the existing graphics.

Pixels whose alpha values are 0.0 within the texture will be rendered entirely transparent (invisible). Pixels whose alpha values are 1.0 are rendered entirely opaque. Alpha values between them will result in varying levels of semitransparency. This is therefore ideal for textures that contain an alpha channel or color key because it allows them to be rendered with sections that are partially or completely transparent.

Figure 2 shows the Grapes textures once again, this time rendered with the AlphaBlend blend state.

Figure 2. Overlapping textures rendered with the AlphaBlend blend state

2.3. Additive

Setting the blend state to BlendState.Additive applies another blend that takes into account the existing graphics that have already been displayed on the screen and also the alpha information contained within the texture being rendered.

This time, however, the colors of the pixels being rendered are added to the colors on the screen, rather than replacing them. Colors are added by taking their individual red, green, and blue color elements, multiplying them by the texture's alpha value to make them observe the texture transparency information, and then finally adding them to the existing red, green, and blue color values already present on the screen. This might well result in some of the elements exceeding their maximum level of 1.0. When this happens, they are clamped to 1.0.

If, for example, the screen were filled with a dark green color whose RGB values are (0.0, 0.5, 0.0), and we render a solid red texture with RGB values (1.0, 0.0, 0.0) and full alpha (1.0), the resulting calculation would be as follows:

Rednew = (Redsource x Alpha) + Reddest = (1.0 × 1.0) + 0.0 = 1.0

Greennew = (Greensource x Alpha) + Greendest = (0.0 × 1.0) + 0.5 = 0.5

Bluenew = (Bluesource x Alpha) + Bluedest = (0.0 × 1.0) + 0.0 = 0.0

The resulting color will have RGB values (1.0, 0.5, 0.0)—an orange color. If we had a yellow color already on the screen (1.0, 1.0, 0.0) and we rendered a purple texture (1.0, 0.0, 1.0) with an alpha value of 0.5, the final color would be calculated as follows:

Rednew = (Redsource x Alpha) + Reddest = (1.0 × 0.5) + 1.0 = 1.5

Greennew = (Greensource x Alpha) + Greendest = (0.0 × 0.5) + 1.0 = 1.0

Bluenew = (Bluesource x Alpha) + Bluedest = (1.0 × 0.5) + 0.0 = 0.5

The resulting color would be (1.0, 1.0, 0.5) as the red value would be clamped at 1.0. This is a pale yellow color.

Because additive blending is adding two colors together, repeated rendering of the same area on the screen pushes the color toward full red, green, and blue intensity. If the colors being mixed contain elements of all three color components, the color will tend toward white.

Figure 3 shows the grape textures rendered with additive blending. The color of the background is being retained and mixed with the texture as it is drawn, resulting in a blue tinge across everything, and cyan leaves on the grapes as the texture's green color and the screen's blue color are mixed together.

Figure 3. Overlapping textures rendered with the Additive blend state

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