It was a better than expected quarter that capped off a record year for Activision. The fourth quarter brought in $2.6 billion in revenue, compared to analyst estimates of $2.44 billion. The company came within spitting distance of $5 billion in revenue for the year ($4.987 billion, to be precise), which is amazing for a company that’s not manufacturing console hardware. The downside of this performance: Activision is already telling us it won’t happen again in 2013, with the company projecting results substantially lower for this year (at $4.175 billion). Will the company see growth again, or was 2012 the highest point it will ever reach?
CEO Bobby Kotick praised the company’s performance: “We achieved record fourth quarter and annual results. And in 2012, on a non-GAAP basis, we generated approximately $5 billion in revenues, a 34 per cent operating margin and EPS growth of 27 per cent over the prior year. We increased our operating cash flow by 41 percent.” It’s extremely impressive; Activision continues to manage its properties well in a horrible retail environment.
Kotick also provided some other info to show Activision’s dominance. “In the US and Europe, we were the #1 video game publisher at retail, we’re the #1 title overall, the #1 console title and the #1 PC title.” Kotick also threw in the following: “We’re also the #1 independent Western Digital game publisher and had the #1 subscription-based MMORPG.”
Notice the exceptionally careful phrasing here, to conveniently exclude Chinese, Korean and Japanese publishers, as well as Russia’s Wargaming.net. And being the #1 subscription-based MMORPG isn’t saying much, given that almost every other MMORPG these days is free-to-play. The lily is already pretty damn impressive; there’s really no need to add gilding.
The rapid growth of Skylanders was given some special attention. “Skylanders, our newest franchise, which is both toys and video games, has life-to-date sold in excess of $100 million toys and generated revenues of approximately $1 billion. This week, Activision Publishing revealed the third game in the Skylanders franchise for holiday 2013. And while there are new entrants in the category and challenges from slower than expected adoption of the Wii U, we remain enthusiastic about Skylanders’ future prospects.”
First we had EA’s CEO saying the Wii U wasn’t a next-generation console, and now Activision’s CEO is calling out the Wii U for slow sales. Nintendo doesn’t appear to be getting much love from third-party publishers in the West.
Kotick then sounded a cautionary note: “We recognized that 2013 is a transition year, as we enter the ninth year of the current generation of console video game systems. We encounter new threats from unproven business models, and we compete against new category entrants. We aren’t immune to unfavorable market dynamics, but we have navigated through the transitions many times before, and we are well prepared to do so again.”
If a business model is unproven, how is it a threat exactly? Isn’t it a threat if it’s doing really well, which in some sense proves that it (or at least that instantiation) works, doesn’t it? Perhaps what Kotick is saying is that there are business models (like free-to-play) which are working damnably well, but unfortunately Activision hasn’t used those models, so they (to Activision’s experience) are unproven. Let’s simplify this: If it’s working well enough to be a threat, shouldn’t Activision at least be experimenting with it?
CFO Dennis Durkin looked ahead to this year’s prospects: “Our product lineup is expected to be anchored by 4 of our top franchises: Call of Duty, Skylanders, World of Warcraft and StarCraft. It will also be a year of significant continued investment in several new properties with long-term potential that are not factored into our 2013 financial outlook, including Activision Publishing’s new Bungie universe, Call of Duty Online for China and the new Blizzard MMO.” That could mean none of those new titles will ship this year. Or perhaps one or more might ship, but Activision isn’t sure, and doesn’t want to count revenue that may not materialize.
Durkin went on to say: “For the full year 2012, Diablo III contributed more than $0.20 of EPS on a standalone basis. This year, our outlook for Blizzard includes the release of the StarCraft II expansion pack, Heart of the Swarm, in March and one additional title. For Call of Duty, consistent with our past practices, we are planning for the mainline release in Q4 to be down versus 2012.”
Activision reached peak sales of Call of Duty two years ago, and expects this year to be lower once again than last year. When you’re coming out with a new version of the game every year, it’s hard to keep posting record numbers. New consoles might help, but they will probably be too late in the year to matter much even if Activision does have a version of Call of Duty ready for them.
Why won’t new consoles matter much for 2013? Let’s look at the numbers. Assuming a new console ships in November, it’s unlikely to sell more than a couple of million units by the end of the year; let’s say it’s an amazing success and sells 5 million. Selling a game to half of those buyers would be incredible; that would be 2.5 million units. When a Call of Duty title can sell nearly ten times that amount, you can see why it’s not reasonable to expect new consoles to help Activision’s numbers significantly. Sure, they might, if absolutely everything goes well. But companies like to be a little conservative on their projections to give themselves a good chance to beat the numbers. Investors like it when companies beat their numbers.
Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime then gave some color on his products: “World of Warcraft added more than 9.6 million players, down slightly from the previous quarter. The majority of the decline came from China, while subscribership in the West was relatively more stable.” Later, Morhaime added: “With respect to China, in spite of the decline in subscribership, it is important to note that the engagement levels of the core items did increase with the launch of the expansions and I think that, that suggests increased engagement by our core players.”
So WoW subscriber numbers are shrinking, but the remaining players are more engaged. To some extent, this is acceptable if overall revenue can remain constant or even rise if virtual goods sales are high enough among the remaining players, and they stay subscribed longer. At some point, though, if subscriber numbers keep falling overall revenue will drop. The key information here is that World of Warcraft has apparently already burned through the boost it got from Mists of Pandaria, and is back to losing subscribers (at least in China), but the rate of erosion isn’t too alarming. Yet.
One of the analysts asked whether development costs will rise for titles destined for next-gen consoles. Kotick was straightforward: “This is my 22nd year doing this, and in every single console transition, we’ve seen an increase in development costs.” Margin improvement for next-gen titles is going to depend on selling more DLC, not on reducing development costs. Until next-gen consoles are in tens of millions of households, revenue from next-gen titles will be lower than current-gen titles – and development costs will be higher. That’s not a good combination.
Activision’s stock has mostly hovered between $10.50 and $12.50 for the past several years, though after yesterday’s report it’s shot up to $13.41, a gain of over 11 per cent. Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter has a long-term target of $19 for Activision stock, which is above the stock’s high point five years ago. It’s difficult to see how the stock gets there unless gaming stocks in general become more well-received by investors. Perhaps if new consoles launch strongly, and Bungie’s new game is a smash hit, and everything goes well…
Meanwhile the general message of this earnings report is that Activision is being careful with major strategy moves. Activision is still merely dabbling in mobile games, and doesn’t expect them to be a significant contribution to the company in the coming year. So far, the company is resisting moving World of Warcraft over to a free-to-play model; that may be wise given that such a changeover doesn’t always work well. Where’s the chance for major growth? Bungie’s new title, the new Blizzard MMO, and Call of Duty in China, that’s where. There are questions about all of them, of course. Will Bungie’s title pull in a significantly different audience than Call of Duty, or will it cannibalize that game’s players? Will Blizzard’s MMO merely move players over from World of Warcraft, or will it attract a significant new audience? Will Chinese players really turn out in big numbers for Call of Duty Online?
Looming over all of these questions is the long-term viability of the console market, and whether the new consoles coming from Sony and Microsoft will revive the console game business to the heights of 2008. Activision is in great shape right now, with billions of dollars in cash and four great brands that generate amazing sales. Of those four brands, three are getting pretty long in the tooth; can they perform at their current levels, or will they continue to decline slowly? The success of new consoles may be critical to Activision’s future. The company may choose to diversify with acquisitions, or it may keep the cash tucked away for a rainy day or a larger strategic acqusition.
Activision’s had a great 2012, and 2013 looks pretty good. The company’s longer-term picture depends mostly on how the console market continues, and how the MMOG market evolves along with Activision’s products in that area. Mobile doesn’t appear to have big potential for Activision yet. The other potential big mover for Activision is a major acquisition, like, say, Take-Two. Activision has enough cash to make such a purchase, or some other large strategic move. We’ll have to keep watching to see how that strategy game might play out.
For now, at least, Activision expects to have sales lower than last year’s level. Growth is only going to happen in 2014 and beyond if Activision’s new projects can do well, and new consoles do well, and existing brands don’t fade too quickly. When you’re at the top of the mountain, climbing higher is difficult. Perhaps the Skylands offer a path higher…
It appears that Activision, too, is suffering from a leak before its planned release. The Xbox 360 version of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 has started showing up in all of the usual places in advance of the title’s upcoming official release. The title’s leak onto the Internet is similar to what we saw with Halo 4; and once again, we can expect Microsoft to come down hard on those who are playing the game early.
As with Halo 4, we are also seeing live streams of Black Ops 2. While Activision isn’t talking, sources tell us that the company is actively engaged in seeking out who might have been responsible for the leak. In addition, word of early sales of the game has also been talked about, with consumers saying they have been able to purchase the game ahead of its release in Slovakia.
Upcoming Assasin’s Creed 3 is among the latest games to dump XP for its shiny siblings. The game’s minimum requirements list Core 2 Duo E6700/Athlon 64 X2 6000+ and 512MB DirectX 9.0c-compliant card with Shader Model 4.0 but XP support is gone.
The Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 team has also decided against supporting old-man-XP and it appears as if it’s just a matter of time before actual inclusion of it becomes newsworthy. Naturally, both these games will support Vista, 7 and 8.
Vivendi chief executive Jean-Bernard Levy stepped down last month amidst growing concerns about the company’s debt and flagging share price. One of the rumored ways that Vivendi could bolster its financial position is to sell off its 60 percent stake in video game behemoth Activision Blizzard, and today more fuel has been added to that fire, as Reuters has reported that Vivendi is now actively testing the waters.
“It’s nothing official yet, but they’ve asked a bank to go and talk to possible buyers for Activision,” said a source close to the Vivendi board, according to the report.
The idea is that by selling Activision Blizzard the French media conglomerate could raise about $10 billion. Those who may be interested include cash-rich firms like China’s Tencent, media giant Time Warner, Microsoft, as well as private-equity heavyweights KKR, Providence and Blackstone, according to banking sources.
There already is an existing relationship between Tencent and Activision as the two recently announced a partnership to offer Call of Duty as a free-to-play online game in China. The report notes, however, that buying Activision outright may not make sense for Tencent and its very different business model.
“They have two big franchises, Call of Duty on the console side and World of Warcraft on the MMOG (massively multiplayer online game) side. And China is not a big market for console businesses; online games are much bigger for various reasons,” said a banker.
Microsoft, on the other hand, may want to add some more blockbuster IP to its arsenal on Xbox, and making Call of Duty 100 percent Xbox exclusive is likely appealing, but the company may not want to invest so much when it’s gearing up to launch a next-gen console in the next year or so.
“They probably don’t want to distract themselves too much, but they are the ones who, if they want to stay in games, would think about owning some of these big franchises, not just providing the consoles,” a banker source said.
Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter recently said that Vivendi is more likely to spin off Activision than selling the gaming firm outright.
Everyone was wondering the other day about some of the titles missing in action at E3. It would appear that the mystery behind Rainbow 6: Patriots not being shown has been answered by UbiSoft. According to Tony Key from UbiSoft in a discussion with IGN, he stated that the game was, “…still in active development”, but “the best thing for the brand was not to bring it to the show right now.”
While a trailer was released last December that looked like the game was very promising, then news was released that changes to the team were taking place, with Jean-Sebastian Decant taking change of the title. Whispers behind the scenes suggested a number of issues going on with the development team and the project schedule, but none of this ever seemed to be confirmed by multiple sources.
While Key said that the project was slated for the current generation of consoles, he did suggest that the full schedule of titles at E3 to show contributed to the decision not to show Rainbow 6: Patriots. While this is all well and good, Key had no additional release date information. Our sources tell us that an 2012 release is pretty much impossible and a late 2013 release is likely; but it could even slip into early 2014, depending on how development remains.
The Wii U is coming off E3 with a lot to prove. While some core third-party titles were shown, the level of support probably isn’t where it should be yet. One game that could make a big splash on Wii U is Black Ops II, which Sterne Agee analyst Arvind Bhatia believes is coming to the new console this holiday and “should contribute to incremental sales of the title and also the Wii U console.”
Activision has never been one to throw its support behind new platforms right away, Activision Publishing boss Eric Hirshberg reminded us. “We take out time to get our ducks in a row before pulling any trigger. We don’t have announcements today but we will be supporting Wii U,” he said.
It’s certainly easy to imagine how Call of Duty on Wii U could add in some extra functionality for checking maps and weapons among other things on the Game Pad touch screen.
Hirshberg was reticent about diving any deeper into Wii U discussion, but he wanted people to remember that “we were there with second screen enhancements with Call of Duty Elite last year and one of the primary uses we’re finding comes through the tablet and through the smartphone.”
He continued, “People are using it as that sidecar as they’re playing… People are using it in that between games way that I think now you’re seeing that kind of rhetoric with the controller from Nintendo as well as the SmartGlass presentation from Microsoft. So it’s great that others are jumping on board and enhancing that idea but it’s something we were doing last year with Elite.”
In our meeting with Treyarch studio head Mark Lamia, it was apparent that Treyarch is looking at Wii U at least, if the company isn’t already developing for it. Lamia was deliberately coy.
“I think it’s interesting to think about all the platforms. Just in general, that’s part of my job as a studio head, working with Activision on assessing where our creative can live. How can people experience it? We obviously have been a Nintendo developer for many years and have created many Call of Duty games on the Nintendo platform. [Wii U] is clearly a more powerful platform than its predecessor and… they have obviously a unique controller and interface,” he said.
Lamia added, “And they announced a Pro Controller which appears to be a controller that would be really good for first person shooter games. It just so happens that’s what we specialize in. So that’s an interesting development and then they have that touch display device and you think about the kinds of things you might be able to do and – without getting into specifics – I absolutely have given it consideration and thought. We’re game developers and it’s a new piece of hardware and technology, so we’re always thinking about that stuff.”
As we pressed Lamia, he fully admitted, “It’s difficult to say because it’s something we’re not talking about. I’m intentionally being elusive because we’re not talking about it!”
Call of Duty: Black Ops II will face stiff competition this holiday season and while Activision Blizzard is already seeing high pre-order figures, the sales bar was set enormously high by the first Black Ops (over 25 million copies worldwide, making it the best-selling game of all time in the US, UK and Europe). Does Black Ops II have a chance to break any records? Analysts don’t believe so.
“I don’t think Modern Warfare 3 is going to sell more than the last Black Ops, so I doubt that this one will break a record. I think that Call of Duty is a phenomenon, selling way more than 20 million units annually, and it’s unrealistic to think that number can grow meaningfully with each annual release,” Wedbush Securities’ Michael Pachter said.
Colin Sebastian of RW Baird agrees. “We are forecasting Black Ops 2 to sell roughly the same number of copies as Modern Warfare 2 in 2011 [22 million copies worldwide - ed.]. Call of Duty is the only mass market core video game and the console industry continues to consolidate around a small number of top franchises. Halo 4 is a potential wrinkle in the ointment with a November launch, but on the flip side, GTA V likely not shipping until March helps,” he told us.
Interestingly, Sebastian believes that AAA games like Black Ops II at this point really need new hardware to shine. “Overall, I think games like Call of Duty need new console hardware – developers are working with 7-year-old technology in an environment when tablets and smart TVs will soon be just as powerful,” he commented.
On the flip side, EEDAR analyst Jesse Divnich said we shouldn’t underestimate the appeal of Call of Duty, and Activision’s marketing muscle.
“The entire HD market is very soft at the moment, and it is understandable that retailers, publishers, and analysts are likely to be conservative on any Black Ops II forecast. Whether Black Ops II sets any records this year will depend entirely upon the overall engagement of HD consumers, which is largely out of the control of Activision and Treyarch,” he said.
Divnich continued, “Every year we question whether the Call of Duty franchises can set new records, and for the last four years they have proven us wrong. Personally, I wouldn’t under-estimate Activision, even against the odds of a more torpid HD market this holiday season.”
Billy Pidgeon of M2 Research thinks there’s a chance for Black Ops II to set a record as well.
“Call of Duty should continue to do very well and is likely to continue to break records as it will sell into a larger installed base of consoles,” he stated. “I think other big hits will also continue to perform strongly until we get into the console transition and enthusiast spending begins to shift towards hardware again.”
Activision has confirmed that the latest title in the Call of Duty franchise will launch on November 13 worldwide.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II is a sequel to the 2009 hit a game that is expected to outsell lifetime sales of last year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.
Last year Activision upped the stakes with Modern Warfare 3 by introducing Call of Duty Elite, a social service for online players, but a troubled launch saw the reputation of the franchise take a hit as it struggled technically to meet player demand. Despite the hiccups, the service has 1.5 million paying members.
Activision aims for a November release for its number one console property, and this year goes up against a similar release window for high-profile titles including Bioshock Infinite, Medal of Honor: Warfighter, Assassin’s Creed III and Halo 4.
According to insiders, they have been able to get a solid read on when we should see the Call of Duty Black Ops 2 sequel. Our sources tell us that the Treyarch-developed sequel to the 2010 Black Ops will hit retail establishments on November 6th. It will again be backed by one of the biggest advertising campaigns for a view game launch that we have seen, with Activision spending some serious coin.
The game is said to feature a new game mode called “Escort,” with “Drop Zone” and “Kill Confirmed” coming back. The “Team Defender” and “Infected” game modes will apparently be dropped this time around for the sequel. The game will offer 15 prestiges in 50 ranks, and with every two prestiges there is a 5 rank increase with a max prestige level cap of 90.
Call of Duty Elite support 2.0 will be a part of Black Ops 2 and fully integrated. It will offer Clan Tournament support. Black Ops 2 will see the MOAB, Nike, Last Stand, Death Streaks, and Flame Thrower removed from the game. The maps in the game will be in the tradition of the first Black Ops in size and design.
The game will have a very heavy emphasis on “hardcore” than ever before. This is what many of the players want, and Treyarch has enhanced the hardcore mode to be better than ever.
Look for a number of other improvements and an excellent single player campaign to be part of Black Ops 2 when it arrives. It is expected that the sales of Black Ops 2 could be the best yet for any Call of Duty title, as many have complained that Black Ops was actually better than Modern Warfare 3. We will have to wait and see.