Not every game can support a $400 physical product.
Physical boxes as a whole are likely on the way out. They're expensive to make, ship and sell through third-party retailers, and of course by the time the disc gets to your system there's often a huge patch to download anyway. It's a physical purchase on a technicality; games on discs are basically just a low latency, high bandwidth way to get information to your console.
But if you're going to ship a box, you may as well ship the highest margin box you possibly can, which is why well-hyped franchises are resorting to increasingly huge collector's editions. Borderlands is just the latest example.
You get a higher profit margin selling plastic than you do selling games, and it's pretty easy to outsource the production of remote-controlled vehicles or drones or head-mounted video cameras that make it into many collector's editions. In the hunt for profits, plastic is king. Just ask Nintendo and Activision with their amiibo and Skylanders, respectively.
This is also why there's only a limited number of these $400 editions going out to the stores. 5,000 of them, to be precise. This is a product aimed at the people with Gearbox or Borderlands tattoos. The fans that follow every game and camp Randy Pithford's Twitter account for news on new products.
No one wants to pay for, and ship, large boxes that are going to take up space in the back rooms of gaming stores before they're marked down. People still remember the Halo limited editions with the Master Chief helmet that ultimately went for less money than the game alone because the space they occupied had value. These days it's a balancing act between how many of these things they can sell, and at what price.
5,000 copies of a $400 limited edition of a game adds up to $2 million in revenue. That money is chopped up multiple ways, but it's a nice bonus on top of whatever else The Handsome Collection would have brought in. No business person is going to pass that up, and if a franchise has die hard fans, you can expect a limited number of "let's swing for the fences and see how many money we can get out of people" editions.
"Traditional gaming is, yet again, in the business of hunting whales"
This move can backfire, of course. Wolfenstein doesn't exactly have a huge following anymore, nor a ton of brand recognition. Bethesda made the odd decision to release a $100 edition of its Wolfenstein reboot that didn't actually come with the game. They made 5,000 of these packages, which came with a bunch of high-margin plastic, and you can still buy one if you'd like from Thinkgeek. They didn't exactly fly off the shelves
The idea that freemium games go whale hunting, and that the practice is somewhat unethical, rankled developer Ben Cousins.
"But let's say for argument that 'big spending' on games is in itself an indicator of ethical issues for a business model. What does that say about the existence of purchasers of the $250 Collector's Edition of Titanfall, which sold out well before reviews were available?" he wrote in a previous piece.
"Traditional gaming is, yet again, in the business of hunting whales, yet somehow it's not an ethical concern in premium gaming," he continued. He has a point. We just don't think about it in those terms.
It's not even worth getting upset about, really. A product is being offered at a certain price, and people will either think it's worth buying, or they won't. This is an attempt to offer your biggest fans something a bit insane, at a price most players would find nearly surreal.
But if someone has the money and wants to spend it on toys and prints that come with their favorite game? I'm not judging. Everyone is feeling the pinch in the modern industry, and this is a better way to increase revenue than using high-pressure tactics to try to get pre-orders or chopping up product for DLC.
Let's just stop pretending that freemium games, with their $100 bundles of fake currency and advantages given to players who pay more, is any worse or better than the AAA world. Everyone is out for survival right now, and no one is immune to layoffs or studio closures. Gearbox isn't forcing you to buy this edition of the game, and you're only missing out on toys if you skip it. But make no mistakes: They're going whale hunting.