Exactly What Constitutes A Microtransaction, Anyway?

Games Features Borderlands 3
Share Tweet Submit Pin
Exactly What Constitutes A Microtransaction, Anyway?

Well, it only took about five minutes after the Borderlands 3 stream for controversy to boil up on social media, but boil up it did. During the presentation, which showcased in-game action from Borderlands 3 for the first time since its announcement, Gearbox Software CEO Randy Pitchford revealed several details about the game, from new characters, mechanics to balancing features, to a Twitch companion that will allow viewers to look at the inventory and load list of the Borderlands 3 players they watch via stream. Rallying up the audience near the end of the event, Pitchford also claimed that the game would have no microtransactions and would not be free-to-play. This was said, however, just after mentioning that Borderlands 3 would still have cosmetic skins, which in Borderlands 2 could be both earned and purchased. It was a bit head scratching, to say the least.

Many pointed out the discrepancy, including GameInformer, which seemed to touch a nerve with Pitchford. His response argued that his use of the term was meant to indicate only a certain kind of microtransaction, “premium currency and loot boxes,” which should have been understood in context:


The ensuing conversation has driven many to consider what, exactly, what is a microtransaction. It’s become such an umbrella, catch-all term. Over the past decade or so, microtransactions earned a lot of their ill will through mobile games, where designers have masterminded the tricks that consumers hate the most, particularly paywalls to success like XP boosters and the like. But console and PC games have adopted many of those practices too. There are the microtransactions that are purely cosmetic and of no strategic advantage to the player, as with those seen in fighting games, like alternate outfits and character avatars. There are season passes, which sell all of a game’s future content upfront, and subscriptions, generally understood to cover the costs of running servers and maintaining the community in larger, MMO-scale titles. There are games where microtransactions are a benign and optional part of the experience but still contain an element of manipulation, such as The Sims 3,where store items will show up in the first three slots of your Build inventory, so as to encourage impulse spending. And there are microtransactions that somewhat straddle the line, like the recent additions of the Repair Kits to the Fallout 76 store, eliminating hours upon hours of scavenging time—a clear advantage in an open world game where scrapping parts is key to survival.

In other words, games are monetized in many different ways, and not all of them are perceived as detrimental to the player or to the balance of the game. That’s the thing about language—usually the most common use of the word becomes its definition and in this case, the rough rule seems to be that any in-game purchase can be labeled a microtransaction, meaning the term can be negative, positive or neutral depending upon an individual’s feelings on the practice as a whole. It doesn’t necessarily denote the predatory aspects of in-game spending, whereas other words like “lootboxes” may. Even then, it can really boil down to the individual (after all, when The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion first offered aesthetic DLC, the players were fit to be tied).

Going back to Pitchford’s comments during the stream, at first I took them to mean that Borderlands 3, like its predecessor, would still have skin drops, which could be obtained by playing the game. However, even Borderlands 2 had skins that had to be purchased, which means that Pitchford does in fact see these as distinct from the term microtransaction, in that it is not in support of the free to play model (supported by his tweets further in the thread). As for that, there’s not much to say except, well, Randy Pitchford is wrong. The term microtransaction is multipurpose. If Pitchford means to say that Borderlands 3 will not suffer the same fate as Battleborn, which went free-to-play despite initial assurances that it would not, then he should be direct in saying so (though I don’t suppose any of us ever actually thought the game would ever be in danger of that anyway).

randy pitchford tweet 2.jpg

Game prices have remained static in the past few decades even as production costs have skyrocketed, and so personally, I have no issue with microtransactions, provided that their cost reflects their genuine worth and that they offer value to the player without giving a strategic advantage. I think most people agree with me. Where the problem arises is when the player is taken advantage of, and that can happen in any monetization scheme, not just free-to-play. At any rate, I’m far more troubled about the sense of entitlement in Pitchford’s tweets; reading between the lines, he seems to feel that pointing out the semantics of the term is akin to sabotaging his PR narrative. On the contrary, it’s important to be specific in addressing what forms of game monetization are being used so the consumer can make a fully informed decision, whether the tactics are predatory or not.

The word microtransaction encompasses a lot of different monetization methods, not just those players don’t like. As the critical eye becomes more focused on loot boxes and other forms of in-game purchases and regulatory legislation becomes a possibility, precision of language surrounding the term will become more important than ever. Whether Pitchford agrees or not, Borderlands 3 has microtransactions.

Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.