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A Lamentation for Alt-Tab

Faithful Peggle alt-tabs without complaint. Bless you, Peggle. Bleggle.

Today, a mini-rant, as befits my short stature and general foul temperament.

Or, at least, an open question. Why do so many PC games not support alt-tabbing out?

I can’t count the number of games I’ve had crash on me, or had a torturous five minute think before responding, or have turned everything black or white or technicolour, or have even hung the whole damn PC, just because I dared to press those two accursed keys. I honestly don’t understand why this isn’t one of the first things tested for – the very nature of the PC is a multi-tasking machine, designed for a myriad ways of communication, productivity and telling strangers on the internet that they suck – ideally all at once. To my mind, it’s like forgetting to include keyboard support.

I find games that won’t alt-tab particularly frustrating because I’ve got a dual monitor setup. I can see exactly what I need to get to waiting patiently on the other panel. It’s in reach, calling to me – but no, I daren’t risk it. Alright, striving for rationality, I’ll admit alt-tab isn’t as important as fixing a thousand fatal bugs or polishing the script to a perfect shine or building rock-solid netcode or whatever, but nevertheless, it’s something that’s absolutely fundamental to the nature of a Windows PC.

And it’s been a part of Windows since 1992. I mean, c’mon. Windows is undoubtedly a monster, but you can’t exactly claim ignorance, developers. MMOs, at least, get it, created with an understanding that their audience is one that lives online, that constantly feeds from a dozen different information-tentacles and absolutely must be able to task-switch in the blink of an eye. Damningly, even bloody Xbox 360s can do it now, or at least their squashed mini-menu equivalent (more an overlay than actual task-switching, really – Valve does something similar with its Steam Community shift-tabbing).

Even the Source engine, by now a remarkably mature piece of code, often won’t play nice – I’d planned to be writing up an interesting HL2 mod tonight, but instead I’m staring at a frozen Loading screen on the other monitor because I didn’t manage to stop the reflex action of reaching for The Unholy Buttons when I heard an instant message arrive. (I’ll admit that during a loading screen was a particularly stupid time for me to have attempted an alt-tab, but the waiting time had gotten painful). I’ve taken to running Team Fortress 2 in a window – it brutalises the framerate, but sweet merciful Jeebus, at least that way I can alt-tab without disaster.

Please, developers, won’t you think of the children? The poor, alt-tabbing children…

And don’t even get me started on games that drop to desktop if you accidentally hit the Windows flag key.

/Rant.

(Oh, if any devs fancy chiming in on why alt-tab gets overlooked/is nightmarish to incorporate/whatever, I’d genuinely be interested to hear. I’m not that blinded by rage, honest.)

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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