What is a game launcher?


A game launcher is, at its most basic level, a desktop app for downloading and launching games. The industry standard is to distribute, download, and play games in a format called a “binary” - but because these files are massive (100GB+) and need to be updated and maintained, the industry uses game launchers as a special software to work with the binary. 

However, beyond enabling game downloads, game launchers can also do a lot to enhance the wider game experience. Done well, they can become the command center and ultimate engagement hub for pc gamers - enabling them to access and play games, meet other players, and interact with new content on their desktop. 

There are two different types of game launchers, which basically comes down to whose games you can access:

  • third-party launchers: typically stores where you can buy or download a catalog of games, like Steam, Epic Games Store, and the Microsoft Store
  • first-party launchers: dedicated to a particular game or developer’s products, like Ubisoft Connect, Riot Games, and Battle.net

Each has its own unique features and advantages for game developers. Third-party launchers (or stores) are essential for game discovery and finding new users but first-party launchers allow you to create unique experiences and systems that enhance how players engage with games and their communities. 

The good thing is you don’t need to choose. Unlike on mobile, third-party pc stores don’t restrict you from distributing games elsewhere. Today, the best game distribution strategies can use a mix of both third-party launchers to acquire new users and first-party, white labeled launchers to engage, retain, and sell to your best players.  

5 benefits of a third-party game launcher

Third-party pc game launchers, like Steam, Epic Games, and the Microsoft Store aggregate games from a wide range of developers and publishers and act like storefronts. The main purpose of a third-party launcher is to make it easy for developers to distribute games to a large pool of players, and for players to access a vast library of game titles to browse, purchase, download, and play in one place - including pre-owned games already installed on the device. Here a few benefits for developers: 

1. Reach a wide user base

Since third-party pc launchers already have a massive user base, distributing your game there gives you instant access to millions of users worldwide - without needing to invest in your own marketing and infrastructure. 

Steam, for example, recently achieved a new milestone with over 33 million concurrent users, while Epic Games reported an impressive 75 million monthly active users (MAU) in December 2023. Users tend to trust third-party pc game launchers that are already established, since they already have the infrastructure for hosting, distributing, and selling digital copies.

2. Get discovered by relevant users 

Getting access to a pool of users is one thing, but cutting through the competition is what’s really critical for building a user base.

The major pc game launchers have invested heavily in creating game discovery tools that help players find games they’d enjoy (like yours). For example, they feature recommendation algorithms, promotional campaigns that highlight new releases and best-selling titles, curated collections and recommendation lists - so you can easily get in front of players despite all the competition.

3. Leverage backend services

In addition to distribution, the third-party pc game launchers also offer backend infrastructure tools. Steam, for example, has Steamworks and Epic has Epic Online Services (EOS). Since every game needs a backend service to power it, wrapping it up with the game launcher makes it easier (and cheaper) to get started. 

Specifically, these backend services help developers set up: 

  • account management and user authentication
  • multiplayer services like matchmaking 
  • server management 

4. Get built-in security

The top third-party pc launchers on the market have extremely robust security protocols - designed to keep both users and developers safe. That includes:

  • data security encryption to protect personal user data and their payment details
  • anti-cheat mechanics to detect and ban players using cheat software, like Steam’s Valve Anti Cheat (VAC) and Epic’s Easy Anti Cheat
  • fraud prevention systems that monitor transactions for suspicious activity and prevent fraudulent purchases and chargebacks
  • secure content delivery to prevent players from tampering or creating unauthorized game mods

5. Offer a unified player experience

Third-party game launchers play a critical role in creating a unified player experience, which goes far to enhance satisfaction and engagement. That largely comes down to user identity and social features. 

Both Steam and Epic, for example, offer unified user accounts, which store players’ downloaded games, game progress, purchases, and friend lists. With a single account, players get a consistent game experience across devices - including cloud saves that let players start a game on one device and continue on another without losing progress. 

The built-in community and social features also go a long way to enhance the player experience. Steam offers extensive community features, including forums, user reviews, and Steam Workshop, where players can share mods and custom content. Epic, while still developing its community tools, also supports player feedback and engagement. Meanwhile, both include friends lists, in-game chat, and party systems - encouraging longer player sessions and fostering friendships. 

5 benefits of a first-party pc game launcher

First-party launchers, like Battle.net, Ubisoft Connect, Rockstar Games, Riot Games and Plarium Play, focus on creating an optimized experience for a specific game or game studio and are operated by the game developers themselves. They’re essentially direct-to-consumer channels that you (and only you) own. The goal is to deepen the relationship between the game and its users and give players a sense of community and belonging. 

If you choose to build a first-party launcher, you can either take it completely in-house or use a platform (like Stash) to do it for you. Remember, first-party launchers aren’t meant to replace Steam and Epic - but rather act as an additional channel alongside it, where you can focus on deep revenue and engagement. Here are a few reasons why studios choose to build white labeled, first-party pc game launchers: 

1. Earn more revenue

The primary advantage of first-party launchers is avoiding the sales fees third-party launchers take on purchases. For example, Steam takes a 30% cut, Microsoft also takes 30%, while Epic has the lowest fee structure, with just 12%. That’s not including taxes which are added on top. 

Instead, with a first-party launcher, you’d only have to pay for sales fees, foreign exchange fees, and a few others - which amount to nearly half of the third-party cut. That means more revenue in your pocket for every dollar spent in your first-party launcher. 

See this article for a breakdown on fees and a comparison against Steam. Or, use this interactive calculator to see how much revenue you could save with a first-party launcher. 

2. Improve marketing with first-party data

If you own the pc launcher, you also own the player data that goes through it - like email addresses and contact info. This data is critical in building a direct line of communication to engage with players more effectively. 

Critically, you can leverage this first-party data to improve your marketing and user acquisition strategies - and ultimately increase ROAS

  • Send emails to get players back in the game
  • Build remarketing campaigns on social media
  • Build lookalike audiences

3. Build up brand affinity

First-party launchers build brand affinity by consistently offering branded experiences that pull players into the game universe. Your logo is everywhere, as are your characters and design. But beyond that - you can also use your first-party launcher to showcase: 

  • Storytelling and lore to establish brand narrative to players - for example, through cinematic trailers, immersive narratives, and behind-the-scenes content. This is fundamental to driving engagement around upcoming releases, special events, and limited-time promotions. 
  • Integrated experiences across your portfolio, allowing players to explore connected narratives, shared universes, and recurring characters within the game ecosystem. By incorporating cross-references and easter eggs between different titles, your first-party pc launcher immerses players in the larger game universe.
  • News and updates engage players in the latest events in your game universe. For example, you can build a dedicated news feed showcasing upcoming content releases, in-game changes, esports news if applicable, and announcements for related games of the same universe. This ensures players are always up-to-date on the game meta, game changes like buffs and nerfs, and in the content made by the game, such as lore, storytelling and everything the game universe. For instance, Activision Blizzard’s showcases cinematics, a game season announcement, and a quick tutorial on how to earn a free in-game item for those who watch your game (World of Warcraft) on Twitch.

4. Deeply engage your community

First-party pc launchers can also serve as social and community hubs where players come together to share their passion for your game - ultimately enabling you to enhance your active player base. 

Communication tools let players connect, interact, form friendships, share their gaming experiences in real-time, and collaborate with other players. You can do this with friend lists, built-in chatting functionalities, and game forums within the launcher where players can discuss strategies, share content, participate in game events, and experience what the game universe has to offer. 

Your job here is to encourage players to create and share user-generated content, like mods, custom maps, fan art, and gameplay videos. Not only does UGC enrich the gaming experience and extend the lifespan of the game universe, it also encourages players to become content creators within the gaming community, producing gameplay videos, tutorials, and reviews, deepening community engagement, and promoting your games to wider audiences.

Riot Games, for example, recently implemented the Riot ID, a universal ID used across all Riot games. With it, players can interact with each other from different devices (such as desktop and mobile), even if they're not playing the same game.

5. Build loyalty programs

As a way to attract players and encourage them to invest in the game ecosystem and stay loyal, you can also use your first-party launcher to build loyalty programs. These programs reward players for spending time and money in your game - encouraging them to continue playing (and of course spending). The goal for you is to increase player retention and spend depth. 

Often, loyalty programs include tiers that users can unlock by playing regularly, making in-game purchases, or completing challenges - and at each tier, players earn exclusive in-game items, major discounts, and early access to new content. 

RAID: Shadow Legends, for example, offers the Plarium Points Program in their first-party launcher Plarium Play. There are a few ways to collect Plarium Points: by participating in events and tournaments, completing quests, or even purchasing them from the shop. Then once players have reached a certain amount of points, they can cash them in for exciting rewards like Legendary Champions. It’s largely geared towards high spenders and encourages them to do more in the launcher in order to keep earning rewards. 

game launcher

Build your first-party game launcher with Stash

First-party pc game launchers offer a huge opportunity for you to take back control of your finances, players, and growth. By avoiding high fees and facilitating direct communication with players, you can offer better flexibility in prices and promotions, cultivate stronger relationships with your player base and improve your games with data-driven insights that are not available with third-party launchers.

The good thing is you don’t need to do it alone. Reach out to us to take back control and learn more about setting up your first-party game launcher with Stash. We’ll help you build a best-in-class launcher where you can cultivate a stronger relationship between you and your players.

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