Ultimate PC Game Launcher Guide
by Edward C. Ames, Gaming Editor
Published in Gaming on 20/10/2019
Online video game marketplaces on consoles are simple. Since gaming consoles are closed platforms you have access to just one market per console and these are run by Sony (PSN Store), Microsoft (Xbox Marketplace), and Nintendo (Nintendo Online Store).
There are no multiple choices to be made; if you want to get a digital version of your next favorite game you don't have any other choice aside from turning on your console and visiting its sole digital marketplace.
On the PC however, things are a bit different. Since PC is an open video game platform there are dozens of markets where you can purchase your digital video games but until recently most of these marketplaces sold just Steam keys. Steam was the one and only game client on the PC that incorporated a game launcher and a digital store enabling gamers to have their whole video game library in one place.
A video game would be bought on Steam, downloaded from Steam servers, Steam would provide a common online platform removing the need to install various apps that enabled multiplayer such as GameSpy or XFire, the said game would be updated automatically via Steam removing the need to download updates from the internet (oh, what an adventurous times those were), and Steam would also handle every bit of digital distribution such as refund requests, troubleshooting, automatic cloud saves uploading, communication between developers and players (via Steam forums), and all other client-side services. In turn, Valve would get a cut (30 percent at the moment) of every game sold on their digital storefront.
But as time passed more and more publishers (the biggest ones of course) decided to offer their own digital game stores. Blizzard and Electronic Arts would be the first ones to go this route; they both went on with their own game stores (Battle Net and Origin) accompanied by game clients and if you wanted to buy EA or Blizzard game on the PC you couldn't do that by visiting Steam.
Other publishers did something a bit different. Ubisoft launched Uplay but the company kept their titles on Steam, and Bethesda launched its Bethesda game launcher but also offered all of their games on Steam until recently when Fallout 76 became Bethesda Game Launcher exclusive. Microsoft kept all of their Xbox Play Anywhere titles tied to its Microsoft Store on the PC. The most recent case is Epic and their Epic Game Store, a new digital game marketplace that launched just a couple of days ago and that works with Epic Games Launcher.
If you game on the PC you have almost a dozen different video game platforms that come with their own digital store and a separate game launcher and that could be more than a bit confusing.
Today, we will explain everything there is to know about every major game launcher - how it works, which video games it offers, exclusive titles available on each store, and unique features found on each platform. Remember that we deal with platforms that combine marketplaces and launchers; we won't talk about many sites that sell Steam, Origin, and other types of PC game keys such as Green Man Gaming or Humble Store. So, let us begin with the most recent one to launch, Epic Game Store.
Epic Games Store
Epic Games, the studio behind Unreal Tournament, the original Gears of War Trilogy, and the most popular game on the planet right now, Fortnite, decided to offer its own online video game store that is tied to the company's Epic Games Launcher. The move is sudden but not unexpected. Epic already made Fortnite exclusive to its launcher as soon as the game got out and since then hundreds of millions of gamers around the world installed the launcher and use it on a daily basis to play Fortnite.
And the recent influx of cash from Tencent certainly made possible such a large investment like launching your own digital game store. At the moment Epic games offer 88 percent of all sales to developers instead of 70 percent developers get on Steam. This is a huge incentive for developers to offer their games on Epic Games Store.
The store is minimalistic in nature and it comes with an extremely limited selection of games (it launched just a few days ago after all) but Epic promises that the store will receive many new games in the coming weeks and months, many of which will be found exclusively on Epic Games Store.
Further, some developers pulled out their games from Steam and made them Epic Games Store exclusives as soon as the store launched. Games like Genesis Alpha One and Satisfactory were available on Steam only to be suddenly pulled off, becoming Epic Games Store exclusives.
The two biggest downsides are the fact that Epic doesn't offer any form of regional pricing and the fact that the selection is extremely limited. On the other hand, Epic will give away two games each month for free for the duration of 2019 (the first two free games are Subnautica and Super Meat Boy, two excellent titles) putting up a huge incentive for gamers to create an account and pick some games on the new storefront.
Epic Games Store Exclusives
Aside from Fortnite, Unreal Tournament, and Shadow Complex, the store offers a couple of interesting exclusive titles such as recently released Ashen (excellent action RPG), Satisfactory, and Early Access title Hades (rogue-lite title) from the studio that made Bastion, Pyre, and Transistor.
Further, Epic Games Store will host a couple of timed exclusives including Genesis Alpha One, and PC version of PlayStation smashing hit Journey.
Epic Games promised that the company will give away two games for free each month, starting with December 14th when Subnautica becomes free for everyone with Epic Games Store account. This is a great incentive for users to create an account because they can get 25 (!!!) free games in the next 12 months.
Steam is by far the most popular digital marketplace for games on PC right now. More than 90 percent of all PC games can be found here, the only exceptions being Electronic Arts and Blizzard games as well as Fortnite, Fallout 76, and two most recent Activision games (Call of Duty Black Ops 4 and Destiny 2. Yup, all future Activision games will be Battle Net exclusives.
If you want a stable game platform with more than a decade of experience of handling digital distribution Steam is the way to go. It offers regular sales but more importantly Steam supports multiple regions and currencies meaning that gamers who live in countries like Russia or Poland or India or Brazil can buy games in their own currencies and pay less for games because their countries don't have the same standard as western countries where the regular price for a new AAA game is $60.
In countries where $60 is lots of money the option to pay less (up to 50 percent) for new games is a huge advantage offered by Steam. Other stores also offer regional prices but Steam is by far the best one because it comes with the biggest number of regions.
The client itself works excellent and is pretty straightforward to use. Steam servers are extremely fast and you will find them the best overall. Installation is straightforward and Steam offers excellent 2-factor authentication with its mobile app.
The platform also has its share of negatives. For instance, the store is more and more crowded with games each month making it harder to discover new and interesting games. Further, Steam uses an algorithm for recommending games meaning that there's no human touch involved when you receive recommendations often leading to bizarre recommendations that don't have much in common with games you love and play.
All games developed by Valve (Dota 2, CS: GO, Artifact, Team Fortress, etc.) can only be bought and played on Steam. Further, many indie games can be found solely on Steam because there aren't many other digital storefronts that focus on indie games.
Steam offers plenty of cool features that cannot be found on other digital game platforms. You can sell and buy digital cards that either can garner you Steam credit (which can be spent on buying games) or increase your Steam level (each completed card set gives you a certain amount of XP needed for leveling up).
Steam also offers a marketplace for various skins for selected games and these skins can also be sold and used to buy new games. And while regional pricing isn't a unique feature by itself, Steam does offer by far the best version of the feature with the biggest number of regions, best prices, and the biggest selection of supported local currencies.
Another feature that isn't unique (multiple platforms have it) is Steam user reviews. The review system isn't unique to Steam but Steam reviews are extremely popular and a solid way to check out the overall quality of specific games, in most cases at least.
Origin launched in 2011, a few months before Electronic Arts released Battlefield 3. Before Origin EA sold all of their games via Steam but the company wanted to keep full profits because of the fact that Steam takes 30 percent on each game sold and because digital video game distribution skyrocketed at the time on PC.
So EA launched Origin, made Battlefront 3 Origin exclusive and shortly after pulled all of their games from Steam. Users who already owned EA games on Steam kept them, but all future games could only be bought on Origin game store. The platform consists out of Origin Launcher and Origin storefront but you can buy games directly from the launcher without the need of opening your browser.
The launcher had lots of troubles in the first couple of years with plenty of bugs, constant freezes and general instability, lots of crashes, and other glitches and for years it was hated upon millions of games.
But in recent years EA made the launcher pretty stable and easy to use. Sure, automatic updates are still a hassle (they work much worse than on Steam) and the platform offers poor regional pricing (there is a small number of regions and prices aren't customized to various countries' buying power like on Steam) but overall, Origin is a solid marketplace and with EA Access it offers an affordable way to enjoy video games published by Electronic Arts. And if you want to play EA games on the PC, you don't have an alternative anyway.
The marketplace offers just games published by EA no matter whether they are made by first party studios or independent developers. If a game is made by an independent studio - like A Way Out - it is still exclusive to Origin because EA published it.
All EA games like Fifa, Battlefield, Dead Space, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Madden, etc. Also, indie games and games made by independent studios that are published by EA such as A Way Out and Unraveled.
Origin offers Origin Access, which is great for gamers who want to play lots of games for a low monthly subscription. For just $5 per month/$30 per year, you can play more than 150 video games, get 10-hour limited access to newly published games (like Fifa 19 or Battlefield 5), and get 10 percent discount off all Origin purchases.
The company's recently launched service called Origin Access Premier offering unlimited access to all games published by Electronic Arts including new games for a price of $15 per month/$100 per year. In fact, with Origin Access Premier you can play all new games much earlier (a week or more) than players who bought those games.
If you like shooters and sports games Origin Access Premier is a solid investment because it allows you to play FIFA, Madden (and we hope NBA Live starting next year), and Battlefield games for $100 per year, which is lower than what you'd pay for two new games. Add to that other titles like Anthem, upcoming Dragon Age games, future Star Wars games, and all upcoming games published by EA and we have to say that Origin Access Premier offer excellent value for gamers who like playing EA games.
GOG (Good Old Games)
GOG was launched by people who founded CD Projekt RED with plans on selling old games that cannot be found on other digital stores without any DRM (digital rights management) protection used to prevent piracy but often making gamers frustrated because of various quirks tied to different DRM systems.
Over years the selection of games offered on GOG steadily grew and today you can purchase thousands of titles, from old classics to the latest indie titles, all of them being completely DRM free. The fact that all games offered on GOG cannot have any form of DRM is the main reason why you cannot buy AAA games from big publishers on the store. And of course, all games made by CD Projekt RED (The Witcher games, Thronebreaker, and Gwent) can be found on GOG.
The store offered just games but recently GOG released its own game launcher called GOG Galaxy. Unlike other game launchers tied to digital storefronts, GOG Launcher is completely optional to download and use. You can still get your games on GOG and download them directly from the site, but having GOG Galaxy makes life easier because the launcher provides access to GOG store, automatic updates and cloud saves uploads.
The launcher works flawlessly and we didn't encounter any errors during hundreds of hours of playing Gwent, The Witcher games, and Thronebreaker as well as many indie titles we own on GOG. The platform is the best source of games for those who like classic games, and those who want to play games without any DRM protection or game launcher. Sadly GOG doesn't offer regional pricing, which is a major deficiency. On the other side, everything else (downloads, updates) works flawlessly.
GOG is, like Steam, known for frequent sales that offer massive discounts on a wide selection of games and for its form or Early Access known as Games in Development that comes with a 14-day refund policy. Also, the store is known for its free game giveaways that happen at least a couple of times per year.
Old classics that cannot be bought on other digital stores such as Ultima Underworld, Battlespire, the original Theme Hospital, The Suffering (both the original and the sequel), Clive Barker's Undying and many more.
Further, you can find Gwent only on GOG (and for this one, GOG Galaxy launcher is required). CD Projekt RED tried to make Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales GOG Exclusive but poor sales made them to ultimately offer the game on Steam.
The store sells games that don't employ any form of DRM protection. This means you can play any game you bought on GOG just by installing it on your PC, without using any launcher.
Battle.net launched alongside Diablo in 1996 and for years it has been the best in-house online matchmaking platform, way better than online platforms used by other games allowing Blizzard games to offer seamless multiplayer experiences without asking players to install third party software. It gradually evolved into a full-fledged digital distribution system and today it is the best game launcher aside Steam.
Download speeds are matched just by Steam, stability is unmatched, and support is excellent. The only major downside is the absence of regional prices (prices are shown in various currencies, but they are the same all over the world).
Battle.net is mandatory to use with all games made by Blizzard and it also comes with its own digital storefront. The launcher and the market are now also used by Destiny 2 and Call of Duty Black Ops IV, expanding the list of exclusives to heavy hitters from Activision.
Battle.net works fantastic, it is the most stable launcher of them all, it comes with user-friendly interface and easy to use market, and it definitely has its place in the world of PC game launchers because all games that utilize it are Battle.net exclusives and cannot be bought on other digital marketplaces. And in the future, it will have even more games because all future multiplayer games from Activision (CoD and Destiny) will be sold exclusively through Battle.net.
All Blizzard titles - Overwatch, Starcraft series, Diablo III, Warcraft III, World of Warcraft, Heroes of the Storm, and Hearthstone as well as Destiny 2 and Call of Duty Black Ops IV.
The ability to buy virtual tickets for BlizzCon, allowing all kinds of exclusive content available through Battle.net launcher.
Uplay is Ubisoft's game launcher and it offers a digital Uplay store that hosts every game published by Ubisoft to date. Unlike Electronic Arts, Ubisoft decided to keep all of their games on Steam. This means that if you buy Ubisoft game on Steam you will have to run two game launchers every time when playing that game - Steam and Uplay.
For this reason, many players loathed Uplay because the launcher was (and still is) required for all Ubisoft games while at the same time it doesn't offer any kind of value to gamers. At least now it is not as buggy and glitch as before when it was a huge annoyance to use. The launcher comes with access to Ubisoft Store which offers regular discounts but it doesn't come with any form of regional pricing. At least when you buy a game on Uplay Store you don't have to run two launchers while playing it.
Uplay doesn't offer any exclusive game, all games available on the store can be found on Steam (newer titles) or GOG (old titles like classic Settlers games).
Uplay points received for buying games on Uplay (and just on Uplay, you won't get points by buying Ubisoft games on Steam) can be redeemed for game discounts.
Bethesda Game Launcher and Store
Up until Fallout 76, Bethesda Game Launcher played the same role as Uplay; it was just another game launcher users had to run alongside Steam every time they play a game published by Bethesda. But with Fallout 76 Bethesda decided to make the game exclusive to its Bethesda Game Launcher and Bethesda Game Store.
You can buy all games published by Bethesda on its online store (which is also available from the game launcher) with Fallout 76 being the only exclusive at the moment. But it looks like all future games from Bethesda will skip Steam because the PC version of Rage 2 can be pre-ordered only on Bethesda Game Store.
Bethesda Game Launcher is still in early stages and it had many bugs prior to Fallout 76 launch so that's a problem because it could follow the way of Uplay and Origin and keep being buggy and glitchy for at least couple of years. And no, other than showing prices in US dollars and Euros, Bethesda Games Store doesn't have regional pricing.
Fallout 76, Rage 2 and all future games published by Bethesda (which includes Doom Eternal, Wolfenstein Youngblood, The Elder Scrolls VI, and Starfield among others).
Microsoft Store and Xbox PC app
Now, Microsoft Store alongside the PC Xbox app isn't a classic digital store + game launcher combo but they made the list because they offer exclusive content and are required to play certain games, mostly Xbox first party exclusives and generally all Play Anywhere titles.
The two work only on Windows 10 and are seamlessly integrated into the OS. Microsoft Store had many troubles in recent years ranging from download glitches (the nastiest being the infamous error after players downloaded a whopping 110 GB of Gears of War 4, only to be notified they have to download the whole game again), through all kinds of bugs (Forza 7 refusing to launch until you perform crazy "ritual" that included deleting and then downloading any app from the Microsoft Store), and poor optimization of Play Anywhere titles (Quantum Break was virtually unplayable when the game launched on PC as a Microsoft Store exclusive).
Fortunately, all of those problems are fixed now and recent titles such as Forza Horizon 4 work perfectly, they don't suffer from download glitches and the Store itself is stable and won't surprise you in negative ways like it used to do. The Market doesn't come with regional pricing but prices are shown in your local currency.
As for the Xbox app, it works perfectly, offers all kinds of social features, supports Xbox achievements, game streaming, photo sharing, and other features that are present on Xbox consoles. The single major downside is the fact that the store works only on Windows 10 and that all Play Anywhere titles support only DirectX 12. Oh, and you should know that in case you buy a multiplayer game on Microsoft Store you will play with other people who bought the said game on the Microsoft Store, you won't be able to play with people who own that game on Steam, so just stick to getting Play Anywhere titles on the store at the moment.
On the other side Xbox Game Pass works in a limited way on PC supporting just Play Anywhere titles and if Microsoft fulfills their promise of bringing full Xbox Game Pass experience on PC this could be a major reason for gamers to use the Microsoft Store in the future.
Microsoft Store exclusives
All Xbox first party exclusives. Third party exclusives like Quantum Break were timed exclusives but they eventually got released elsewhere (like on Steam).
Support for Xbox Game Pass on PC. At the moment you can only play Play Anywhere titles (Gears of War 4, Forza Motorsport 4, ReCore, Halo Wars 1 and 2, Sea of Thieves, State of Decay 2, and a handful of indie titles) but Microsoft plans on eventually bringing full Xbox Game Pass experience on PC. When it does that Microsoft Store will become an excellent choice for gamers who want to have access to a bunch of games on PC for a relatively small monthly subscription.
And finally, we present Itch.io, an online store devoted to indie titles. Like GOG, you can buy and download games from the site which are DRM free with the desktop app being completely optional. And like on GOG, most games found on Itch.io are DRM free. The store does sell some games as Steam keys meaning you have to activate those on Steam meaning they aren't DRM free titles. Just look at the game's description and check whether you receive Steam key or installation filed for the game.
Many games on the store are completely free and Itch.io also offers plenty of game demos that cannot be found on Steam or other digital storefronts. Many titles are also exclusive to the store, most of them being small indie titles that are either free or that cost a couple of bucks. Aside from games, Itch.io also sells various assets and tools for creating video games as well as independent comics.
The store doesn't support regional pricing and you won't find any AAA games there but if you are into indie titles Itch.io is a perfect game store for you.
Many small indie titles that cannot be found anywhere else.
Aside from selling games, Itch.io also offers a variety of tools, programs, and assets aimed at game developers. You can also find a bunch of books that can help you with jumpstarting your game developer career. And last but not least, the store offers a wide selection of comics and graphic novels.