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A Lamentation for Alt-Tab

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.


(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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