Why Borderlands 3 microtransactions shouldn’t be applauded

Gearbox finally lifted the curtain on Borderlands 3 yesterday and the reaction was quite positive from both members of the press and consumers (more or less). However, instead of basking in a great reveal stream, Gearbox CEO and co-founder Randy Pitchford spent much of his night arguing with gamers and press about what constitutes a microtransaction. However, his entire argument was based upon cosmetic DLC being less predatory than something that impacts gameplay, and that is false.

The issue all stems from a Game Informer tweet that reads, “Despite Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford’s comment about ‘no microtransactions’ in Borderlands 3 during today’s livestream, we’ve been told cosmetic items are still purchasable.” This is a factually correct statement. Pitchford did say that there would be “no microtransactions,” and then received a huge positive reaction online for doing so.

However, there are in fact microtransactions in the game, even if they’re just of the cosmetic variety. If you’re trying to get people to part with a few bucks at a time then that’s a microtransaction. However, Pitchford took great umbrage with the headline and called it clickbait.

“I made it very clear we’re going to do more cosmetic stuff like we did in Borderlands 2,” explained Pitchford. “You know I was talking about premium currency and loot boxes kind of stuff NOT being in our game.”

Pitchford would go on to debate the matter with writers from Game Informer, random fans that he “owned” by pointing out that they followed him, and anyone that dared to call him a liar. Pitchford got so caught up on the word “liar” that he went on a 18-part Twitter thread on Game Informer’s tweet, which would have barely gained any traction if it wasn’t for him constantly mentioning it.

He became obsessed with this notion that he was being called a liar and laid out his thought process quite clearly in a tweet to GI’s Andy McNamara. “Do you believe my intent on stage was to mislead or do you believe I was being sincere? Do you believe my intent was to lie about cosmetic offers (consistent with BL2) or was I actually making a pledge against [virtual currency] and loot boxes, etc?” read the tweet.

He’s playing a game of semantics since a lie is typically described as “an intentionally false statement.” Ultimately, that intent doesn’t matter here. The article wasn’t an attack on his character, and he did far more damage to his reputation by the storm of tweets afterwards than the article did, but clarifying a false statement he made. Saying there’s no microtransactions is completely false, even if it was relatively well-intentioned and not as malicious as loot boxes.

Why cosmetic Borderlands 3 microtransactions shouldn’t be praised

borderlands 3 microtransactions

Pitchford constantly said that Gearbox deserves praise for their stance is perhaps even more worrying than attacking the press for doing its job and clarifying marketing speak meant to make people mindlessly applause.

“The stand taken by Gearbox and Borderlands 3 should be applauded,” wrote Pitchford while arguing with Twitter user LegacyKillaHD. He went on to explain that he “had expected the team … would be supported and applauded for holding-the-line with our stance on AAA monetization.”

However, that shouldn’t be the case and if they are being applauded then it shows how low the bar has been set for manipulative business practices. While a lot of gamers, and it seems Pitchford, would argue that as long as items aren’t pay-to-win then they’re not exploiting players. However, these two types of microtransactions are targeting totally different types of consumers. In fact, some of the most predatory microtransactions have been cosmetics.

Take a look at Overwatch, and look at how many people will dump their money to buy loot boxes in order to get limited time skins (as evidence by Blizzard’s revenue following the game’s launch). Now, it seems like Borderlands 3 won’t be going down that route necessarily, which is a good thing, but there’s still no reason here to give a huge company and publisher an applause for not doing the scummiest thing possible. In this case, it’s fine, but not worthy of applause.

As alluded to, both performance-based and cosmetic microtransactions are targeting two different audiences. The “pay-to-win” variety are tempting to hyper competitive players that want to win at any cost. If spending hundreds of dollars will make their loadout better then they are probably willing to do it. Is a publisher forcing them to buy them? Nope. Is it playing upon people’s insecurities and gambling tendencies? Absolutely.

Similarly, cosmetics play into people wanting to have the latest cool costume. With loot boxes, they could be willing to spend hundreds to get something that would regularly cost a few bucks if sold regularly. It creates a have and have-not economy. Both are manipulative even if they’re done so in different ways.

Doing it right should be the expectation

borderlands 3 microtransactions

Considering all of the public statements Pitchford has made against digital currency and loot boxes, it seems that Borderlands 3 won’t be going down that route. This is good news, but once again, it shouldn’t be something that is praised. Simply doing the right thing is what should be expected of a publisher, and they don’t need to be patted on the back for not going above and beyond when it comes to terrible business practices.

After all, when you’re a developer that infamously put out Aliens: Colonial Marines after showing vastly different demos to press prior to release, then people should be taking what you say with a grain of salt. The Borderlands series has helped rehabilitate Gearbox’s image a lot, but Gearbox still has a deserved stain on its prestige. You earn goodwill and it isn’t handed out overnight.

Borderlands 3 looks to be delivering exactly what fans want from a new Borderlands. There aren’t any huge game-changing features or innovative ideas and that’s OK, which is just like how their business model isn’t disruptive nor catering to consumers. There’s nothing here to be overly upset about, but there’s also not much to be praising unless we’ve lost all hope for the gaming industry. We’ve seen other major publishers take small steps back since the Star Wars Battlefront 2 debacle. Gearbox and 2K are merely following the current trends in order to avoid outrage, not doing anything worthy of adulation.