Why So Many PC Games Have A Launcher: Can You Skip Them?

I’m going to sound old now, but back in my day (when dinosaurs still roamed the earth?!), you could launch PC games with ease: you just double clicked the .exe shortcut, which was usually located on the desktop. Simple.

Now, though, we seem to have a million launchers lying around, and games have to go through these launchers – and then usually download some unexpected update. Why is this? And can they be skipped, so we can go back to launching our PC games in seconds and not minutes?

Why PC Games Have Launchers

Various PC game launchers with the question why so many launchers

Gaming on a PC one or two decades ago was fairly simple: you would insert the CD/DVD disc, install the game, and get an .exe shortcut file on your desktop. To play the game, you would… wait for it… double click the .exe, and the game would launch in seconds. Wow!

So it’s frustrating that we are now in a position where every PC game seems to have an annoying launcher, that pops up saying “Preparing to launch…” before you can actually play the game!

A game launcher is known as ‘middleware’, in the sense that it sits in the middle of your operating system and the actual game. When you ‘request’ to play a game, this request actually goes through the game launcher – which then performs a number of checks.

Some game launchers are part of game stores, such as ones from Steam, Itch.io and Epic Games. Whereas other launchers exist purely to optimize a game, such as ones from AMD Radeon and GeForce Experience.

Despite being annoying, game launchers can actually provide a number of benefits:

  • They help manage game updates. Previously, a game developer would have to build their own updates and patching system – a task that would take them away from actually building the game.
  • They help install common system libraries. Many games need common, system-wide libraries to work – such as DirectX or C++ Redistributable. It used to be the case that computers had loads of different C++ Redistributable versions installed, from dozens of different games (they would all install a slightly different version). But due to common game launchers, only 1 or 2 versions of each library are now usually required.
  • They help optimize the game’s performance. Some game launchers (such as from NVIDIA’s software) will detect the games you have installed, and give you a number of optimization options to speed up the game’s performance.
  • You sometimes get exclusive discounts. Some digital PC game stores offer you exclusive discounts, either on purchasing a game, or on add-ons like DLC. It is now easier than ever to shop around and buy a game at a discounted price, while previously we had more limited options (having to go to a physical game store to buy the CD/DVD).

Okay, so that covers the positive and optimistic arguments for game launchers. However there are some slightly more… nefarious reasons that they exist, too.

A happy man hugging lots of money
Someone hugging lots of money!
  • Money. Corporate greed. Whatever you call it, the big game companies want it (or have it!). While it was great when everyone used Steam, the big companies resented having to pay Steam a 30% revenue cut to use their platform. As a result, companies branched out and developed their own game platforms – allowing them to keep more precious money. Hmm, warm dollars.
  • Telemetry (data collection). In addition to keeping a bigger share of the revenue, the big game companies also realized that they can collect more data about us all if they have their own platform. After all, Steam aren’t randomly going to give millions of data points about all their customers to other game companies. If those companies want to learn more about their customers, they had to develop their own platform to track everyone in a really creepy way gain valuable insight into their customers.
  • DRM. Ah, digital rights management. Whatever would we do without you? Well, play games with less hassle, for one! DRM is the bane of most gamer’s existence. Basic DRM might be understandable, but being unable to play games if your internet fails is crazy. Unfortunately, the recent surge in PC game launchers means that DRM can be added into our games easier than ever.

In short: PC game launchers have grown massively because they offer a variety of benefits – from controlled software updates, to exclusive discounts. But profit-seeking, mass data collection and DRM are also reasons why game developers are launching their own platforms.

Can You Skip PC Game Launchers?

Thankfully there are some ways that game launchers can be skipped: it just depends on the game platform you used (such as Steam or Epic Games), and also the game itself.

For games installed on Steam, you just need to go into the game’s properties (by right clicking it in your library, and clicking “Properties”), then add -nolauncher under “Launch Options”:

Adding the nolauncher options to a games properties on Steam
Adding the -nolauncher options to a game’s properties on Steam

This will then make it launch faster, by skipping the full launch process. One downside of this, though, is that any necessary updates might not get installed – meaning that you can’t enter multiplayer modes until these are installed.

A similar process can often be followed for other game platforms. For example, on Epic Games, you can sometimes skip the launcher by clicking into a game’s settings, going to “Additional Command Line Arguments” and adding -skip_launcher or --skip-launcher.

While this sometimes works, it’s not 100% reliable. Other users have had to install extra scripts to have a better experience with Epic Games:

If hacking game launchers doesn’t sound fun to you, you might want to consider GoG Galaxy which is a pretty awesome game store. Firstly, they have a pretty good DRM-free commitment. Well, some games might have some level of DRM – but it won’t be some always-on, controlling rubbish that affects so many other games.

Secondly, their games don’t have buggy, bloaty launchers that take ages to launch a game. In-fact, games purchased via GoG come wrapped in their own self-executable file that is more like games of old (where you installed the game with a CD/DVD first):

No, you don’t need any additional apps or launchers. All games downloaded from GOG are nicely wrapped in a self-executable (exe) setup file, some of the larger games are accompanied by binary files.

GoG.com help article, accessed February 2023

So you can often skip PC game launchers – especially on Steam and GoG – but the exact process might vary, and some launchers (like Epic Games) make it harder than it needs to be.

Why Isn’t Steam The Only Launcher?

The Epic Games store and launcher
The Epic Games store and launcher

I used to dislike going to actual shops to buy game CDs, so I really loved seeing Steam come on the scene and transform PC gaming into a convenient, digital marketplace – with a simple, lightweight client.

It has therefore been annoying to see an increasing number of games disappear from Steam, including Rocket League, Fortnite and more. Many games have become exclusive to their own developer’s game store, such as Epic Games which now boast a number of exclusive games.

Unfortunately this trend will not quickly reverse itself. While Bethesda did shut down their own launcher and move back to Steam, many of the other big game companies (like Epic, Ubisoft and EA) will continue to have their own game launchers/stores – meaning that the era of multiple game launchers is here to stay.

And why is this? Well, we touched on the reasons earlier: money, corporate greed, telemetry (i.e. data collection) and DRM! Sorry if that sounds negative, but it’s true. There is no real incentive for the big game developers to shut down their launchers, and go back to giving Steam 30% of game revenue.

It’s the same story with movie and TV series streaming. There was a time where Netflix ruled all, having an amazing library of content to watch. But now there are a crazy number of streaming services, which would cost you well over $100 per month if you subscribed to them all.

Examples Of The Various Game Launchers (12 And Counting!)

Crysis 2 on the EA Launcher
Crysis 2 on the EA Launcher

There are at least a dozen fairly prominent PC game launchers available right now, and I list these below:

  1. Steam
  2. GOG Galaxy
  3. Epic Games
  4. Itch.io
  5. EA App (previously Origin)
  6. Ubisoft Connect (previously UPlay)
  7. XBox App
  8. Battle.net
  9. Microsoft Store (built into Windows 10 and 11)
  10. LaunchBox
  11. AMD Radeon/Adrenaline Software
  12. NVidia GeForce Experience

The number actually used to be higher, because there was a time where you could still actively use Origin and UPlay, before they got deprecated in favor of EA App and Ubisoft Connect.

I personally mainly use Steam, and only install other launchers if I really need to (for example, if they have an exclusive game that I really want). But since I’m mainly a Rocket League addict – and I still have it installed via Steam – I don’t often need to dive into the other launchers.

Are Launcher-Free Games A Panacea – Or A Problem?

Cannot launch yet due to the message Preparing the Epic Games Launcher
Ugh, can’t I just play the game, Epic?

Before wrapping up, I wanted to discuss whether you can still have ‘the good old days’ where a game had a simple .exe, and no launcher.

The short answer is yes, you can still get games without launchers. Many games produced before 2015 can still work without launchers, plus games purchased through GoG don’t really have a launcher. Most indie games from Itch.io also launch quickly and with minimal issues.

However I would point out that some launchers (or PC game stores) are actually a good thing, so I wouldn’t restrict myself to only playing games from the year 2000!

Steam and GoG are fairly user-friendly experiences, and their launcher is either fairly quick (in the case of Steam), or non-existent (since GoG wrap the game in a simple .exe). But both platforms help to manage game updates and patching fairly easily, which is important because so many games nowadays are rushed out – and then subject to regular updates and patches.

The ‘good old days’ of installing all your games through a CD/DVD wasn’t actually all that good. If you lost the disc, you would lose access to the game. Plus you would have to sift through the developer’s website to see if updates were available.

I really like that I can launch Steam from a new computer (or new OS install), easily download my games, and play them again.

cropped A picture of me Tristan
About Tristan Perry

Tristan has been interested in computer hardware and software since he was 10 years old. He has built loads of computers over the years, along with installing, modifying and writing software (he's a backend software developer 'by trade').

Tristan also has an academic background in technology (in Math and Computer Science), so he enjoys drilling into the deeper aspects of technology.

Tristan is also an avid PC gamer, with FFX and Rocket League being his favorite games.

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