Patching a game to add a launcher is like performing surgery to add an appendix, and it’s become alarmingly common this year. Once, I seem to remember, bugs were fixed, typos corrected, and new content added, but since September “Quality of Life Update” for the BioShock games (opens in new tab) added a completely unnecessary new launcher, I started to worry that every update to my games library contains an unwelcome guest.
This is nothing new. The scourge of launchers in our start menus has been a nuisance for years, but the February release of the Steam deck (opens in new tab) means they have evolved from an irritating to a potentially game-changing problem. The addition of the 2K launcher to the BioShock Remastered collection not only added another pointless ritual you had to perform to play the thing you bought, it was just broke the games for users on Linux (opens in new tab) and steam deck. Valve’s Proton compatibility layer could easily translate BioShock itself from Windows to Linux, but the launcher? It had no idea what to do with it.
It’s absurd to put a launcher into a six-year-old remaster of a 15-year-old game in the first place, but when that launcher then puts a launch failed? You accidentally satirized yourself. And look, I’m not an MBA marketing guy, but I can’t imagine the sparse purchases available on the 2K launcher being a huge source of revenue for the company. Perhaps it’s an incredibly rich vein of player data: a rare and revealing insight into the behaviors and motivations of the six of us still playing BioShock in the Year of Our Lord 2022.
This wouldn’t be worth complaining about – which isn’t to say I wouldn’t still be complaining about it – if it were an isolated incident, but it keeps happening. A November update to the Kerbal Space program added a launcher whose sole purpose seemed to be to promote KSP 2, and players immediately started Reddit (opens in new tab) and the Steam forums (opens in new tab) to yell about broken mods and Steam Deck nonsense. As I write this, EA is trying to cobble together a solution (opens in new tab) for Deck defects caused by the Origin replacement EA app.
Is this all worth it? Have you ever launched a game from Steam, only to see Origin or UPlay come to life, and thought “Ah, yes, how glad I am to see you”? Of course not, unless you own shares of EA or Ubisoft. These things don’t exist to make games better, they exist to give corporate liches and C-suite types a little warm glow.
It irritates me all the more because, my friends, there is a better world. I’ve seen it. Forgive my blasphemy, but it’s called the Nintendo Switch, a hand-sized block of glass and plastic with the power of a tea candle. I bought one a few months ago; it lives under my television and asks me nothing. When I turn it on – which I do by picking up the controller that’s on my coffee table and clawing at its big, friendly buttons – it immediately snaps to consciousness and what game I was last playing. At no point in this three-second process is any software launched outside of the game itself, at least none that I can observe.
Don’t get me wrong, in every way except actually launching the games, the Switch is a worse way to play than my computer’s os. Games run worse, cost more, and for some reason I have to pay Nintendo to get full use of the internet connection I’m already paying someone else for. But the hassle-free experience of launching games on console has almost led me to resent PC’s openness as a platform: the very thing that makes it great, but also the thing that allows this launcher nonsense to spread unchecked.
There is reason for hope. Saw it early this year Bethesda is discontinuing its launcher (opens in new tab) in favor of migrating back to Steam. Granted, games like Fallout and Skyrim have their own game-specific launchers that let you fiddle with options and data files, and remain maddeningly unnavigable with a gamepad, but it’s a start. I suppose Steam is another launcher at the end of the day, but it never fires when I launch something I bought from the Epic Games Store or GOG.
It would have been nice if we got this down years ago when launchers were just an inconvenience, but now that they’re actively breaking games, something definitely needs to be done. I don’t want to get off my couch to enter a 2FA code after the EA app logged me out for the millionth time and Steam Deck users want their games to actually work. Please let 2023 be the year we all hit the unlaunch button.