Daily Reaction: Randy Pitchford and Game Informer Feud Over Borderlands 3 Microtransactions

After a week of travel overseas, winning a Team Sonic Racing tournament, seeing family, and checking out Borderlands 3 in person, Daily Reaction is finally back from its brief hiatus. And wouldn’t you know it, just like clockwork, the video game industry gives me something great to talk about right out of the gate: The feud between Randy Pitchford and Game Informer over the word “microtransactions.” I would have written this yesterday, but I wanted to make sure to get my hands-on impressions of Borderlands 3 out first. Pitchford has no bearing on my feelings for the game, and overall, I’m very excited for what Gearbox is doing with with Borderlands in 2019.

So let’s set the stage. During the gameplay reveal stream for Borderlands 3, Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford asserted that there were no microtransactions in the game, but proceeded to talk about skins and heads for characters, just like past games have done. Yes, we got his intent behind what he was trying to say, but the script was confusing. If you tell gamers there are no microtransactions and then you to proceed to talk about things that are ostensibly microtransactions, you’re going to get called out on it. As one Twitter reply put it, cosmetic items are definitely microtransactions—despite protestations from Pitchford to the contrary—because you make a “small (micro) purchase (transaction).”

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I had seen this same presentation a day earlier when the press got its hands on time with the game. When Pitchford got to the part about microtransactions during that rehearsal run, a few of us nudged each other and noted that he was likely to be torn apart for the incorrect wording. We’d hoped that the script would be adjusted for the actual live stream, but it was not. The “no microtransactions” line was left in, and with it, a very confusing message as Pitchford tries to redefine what a “microtransaction” is.

Game Informer got in on things when it posted an article clarifying these statements. Essentially, Pitchford’s excitement was around monetizing Borderlands in a way that they’ve done before and that people have approved of. He was eager to be transparent and tell the world that it didn’t have any of the kind of stuff that most people hate: Loot boxes, random items, free-to-play and pay-to-win mechanics, etc. The additional support will come from fully featured expansion packs and completely optional and non-randomized cosmetics that you can purchase directly. But apparently Pitchford doesn’t think these cosmetic items constitute microtransactions when they indeed do.

Borderlands 3 Microtransactions – Redefining a Word

Look, I get what Pitchford was trying to say, but you can’t take a word that already means something obviously and clearly within the gaming industry and try to redefine it to look prettier for your game and content plan. I commend Gearbox for what they are doing with Borderlands 3’s monetization. I think it’s awesome, and I think that the microtransactions that it will have are about as consumer friendly as you can get. But I also think that it definitely has microtransactions, and that’s where the messaging gets confusing. It all hinges on that one silly word, and Pitchford’s insistence that somehow the direct purchase of cosmetic items doesn’t fall within the realm of the definition of microtransactions.

The problem is you can’t take an established term like microtransactions and try to redefine it to fit your narrative. Sure, “no microtransactions” sounds way better and concise as a marketing bullet point than “no paid loot boxes, pay-to-win mechanics, free-to-play bullshit, etc.” but it’s simply not true, and no amount of twisting the word can make it true. There are paid cosmetic items in the game, which constitute microtransactions, plain and simple. Again, I get the idea that Pitchford was pitching, and I think it’s great the Borderlands will take a very consumer friendly stance on monetization, but equivocating that stance to “no microtransactions” muddies the message they are trying to send.

Definitions aside, Pitchford pitched a fit at Game Informer over its supposedly unfair coverage of him and his game. It was all keyed off of this tweet:

Game Informer’s Editor-in Chief, Andy McNamara, insisted that Game Informer’s aim here was to simply clarify the potentially confusing messaging used in the stage presentation with further quotes and information that were given during an interview. “No microtransactions” isn’t technically true because there will be cosmetic items available to purchase. The idea, again, being that there aren’t any pay-to-win mechanics, paid loot boxes, or paid items that will affect gameplay in any way.

What this all resulted in, if you check Pitchford’s tweet replies for the big gameplay reveal day, was a slew of defensive tweets attempting to skirt the fact that the word microtransactions was simply used incorrectly. It could have all been easily cleared up with a “Sorry, you’re right, microtransactions was a bad wording choice in that case” and then clarifying the messaging from there. Instead, Pitchford asserted that the press was out to get him, was apparently calling him a liar, and was ruining the Borderlands 3 gameplay reveal day.

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I do not think that Randy Pitchford lied or intentionally misled in this case. But I do think that trying to redefine a well-known industry term like “microtransaction” isn’t going to go over well. If Game Informer hadn’t sought to make the clarification today, there would have been plenty of fans checking Pitchford’s receipts on that statement when Borderlands 3 starts selling cosmetic items—ostensibly and undeniably microtransactions—down the road.

Game Informer isn’t your enemy Randy. They only wanted to help provide a more clear messaging to those who are excited for this game. That’s literally a major part of our job as the press. If Pitchford had simply worked with Game Informer as they sought to bring clarification to the statement, rather than fighting against them every step of the way, it could have gone a long way in clearing things up. Then the focus of the day could have been on the exciting Borderlands 3 gameplay reveal, which really has myself and many others excited for what’s to come in September, microtransactions and all.

Daily Reaction reacts daily to the video game industry. Have suggestions for the column or subjects you’d like us to react to? Let me know in the comments below and be sure to check out previous Daily Reactions for more dives beyond the headlines.