In 2004 my housemate pre-ordered Half-Life 2 at the local shop, brought it home, and then installed this new Steam thing to launch it. Only the servers weren't working, and it took over a day before he could play his game. His offline, singleplayer game. What rubbish, I thought. This will never catch on.
15 years later, I have eight separate launchers installed on my PC. Steam has been joined by Origin, Epic, Uplay, GOG Galaxy, Bethesda, Battle.net, and itch. That's not counting software that can launch games but which also does other stuff, like Discord, the Xbox app, Vortex, and Nvidia's GeForce Experience. Point is, it's a lot of programs just to run other programs, and this is after I got rid of the Rockstar Social Club. It's enough to make anyone pine for an all-in-one solution.
Playnite wants to be that solution. It's a launcher that combines your libraries from all of these services, as well as any other games you have installed, even if they're emulated. All your games in one place—sounds like a dream.
Steam lets you manually add outside games, but only ones you have currently installed. Give Playnite your permissions and it'll import your complete library from the various competing services. After spending a few minutes remembering my passwords for all those launchers, Playnite built a huge library out of almost everything I have.
And then it let me order them nicely. This is the most appealing thing about Playnite. Games can be sorted by a broader range of categories than in any other program I've seen, including release date, developer, publisher, series, and play count. And the covers mode, which finds box art for as many of your games as it can, has a much wider range of zoom options than these things normally do.
Sometimes it doesn't find any art or gets it wrong (it thinks the original Donkey Kong is DK: King of Swing on the Gameboy Advance, which is close enough), but the great thing is you can personalize everything. Any box art can be replaced by your own, and you can also edit the "sorting name" for each game to ensure that they end up in the right place. Steam allows for some similar customization of the grid view, but it's a manual process, and effectively sorting by tags requires a third-party app.
Maybe I'm the only person bugged by the way Steam files Napoleon: Total War under T but leaves Rome: Total War under R, or the way it inserts Thief Town in the middle of the Thief series, to which it's unrelated, or the way GOG puts The Witcher after The Witcher 3. I mean, I know I'm not the only one because on the internet there is always someone more precious than the fussiest person you know. Fortunately for us, you can tell Playnite to pretend Thief: Deadly Shadows is called Thief 3 for the sake of order and finally exhale that breath you've been holding since 2014.
Playnite also has things normal people might want, like controller support, a fullscreen equivalent to Big Picture Mode, the ability to track playtime (it imports existing playtime numbers from Steam and GOG Galaxy too), and support for themes and extensions. Also it's free, unlike some of its competitors, and I didn't notice it affecting performance in any way. But within a week of installing Playnite, I've already stopped using it.
One reason is that it's not quite a complete library, much as it tries. Uplay doesn't play nice and won't let Playnite add games unless they're installed, and it also doesn't list Steam games I have through family-sharing. Though it grabs my full collection of Atari 2600 games emulated through Stella it won't list Kega Fusion's Sega games or Higan's Nintendo games. Both are apparently supported, they just won't show up for me after a few tries, and when I download something that promises convenience I'm extra lazy about messing with its settings.
But more significantly, Playnite does nothing to alleviate the biggest problem of having multiple launchers. It's still running each of them before running the associated games, which means any that haven't been opened for a while will have to update themselves, and sometimes the game in question, before letting me play. There's no way around this problem, but it still dampens Playnite's appeal.
I've gone back to having every launcher on my desktop and randomly opening each one at intervals just to let them download patches because, absurd as it is, this is the only way to make it possible to instantly play a game whenever I want to. And if I'm opening all these launchers constantly anyway, I may as well just use them.
One definite advantage of Playnite: Being able to search through almost all my games in a single place when I forget which platform I bought a 1990s adventure game on. Being able to sort games by date so I can remind myself what came out this year is also cool. If I ever find the time for it, reorganizing and finding nice box art for the whole collection would totally be soothing in a "reorder the bookshelf by genre" kind of way. That's why I'm going to keep Playnite around, but day-to-day go back to using each company's launcher for their collection of games.
So now I have nine launchers installed on my PC.