there are hard-core digital gamers, lots of them

shrink-wrapped software–yesterday’s story

In the heyday of shrink-wrapped video game software, the dominant companies, like Nintendo, Electronic Arts and Activision, had three key advantages other than engaging original content. None were well understood by Wall Street.  They were:

–these firms owned/controlled the strongest distribution networks

–like other entertainment forms, fans restocked their inventories with titles in the newest format.  So they enjoyed a big surge in sales growth every four or five years as a new generation of game devices was introduced, and

–perhaps the key competitive advantage, the industry spawned a group of intense users of their products, maybe 300,000 strong in the US and an equal number abroad.  These hard-core gamers could be counted on to buy almost any well-crafted game.

hard-core users

How important was this group?  If you figure that the wholesale price of a shrink-wrapped game would be $40, and that it would be a hit only in the US or only abroad, then you could be very confident of generating revenue from a good game of about $12 million from the hard-core group.  Until the past few years, when game development costs spiraled up over $20 million, that meant that a well-made game would be highly profitable even if no casual gamers bought it.

social gaming

Enter simple games, cheap to develop and delivered either through social networking sites or through cellphones.  My assumption, and that of Wall Street, I think, has been that these gamer players are by and large casual fans who dabble but don’t get very involved in game play.  Maybe it’s just that the games are relatively simple and don’t require the lightning reflexes most hard-core shrink-wrapped gamers display that fosters this belief.

It turns out, however, that that’s not so, at least according to a recent survey by market researcher NPD.  In fact, there is a large group of hard-core mobile and social networking gamers.  These gamers bear more than a passing resemblance to their hard-core console gaming counterparts.  For example:

–avid console gamers spend 18 hours a week (yes, that’s right) playing; their digital counterparts spend 16 hours

–hard-core console players buy 5.4 games a quarter; digital gamers buy 5.9.

One big difference between the two groups is size.   There are presently about twice as many obsessed console gamers as there are mobile/digital ones.

A second is dollar purchasing volume, although the disparity may not be quite as high as it seems at first.  At $50 each, hard-core console gamers spend just under $1100 a year on games.  Their mobile/digital counterparts lay out only a tenth of that.  But console gamers’ net outlay can be far lower than the gross, depending on how many of their games they resell, either privately or through video game stores.

investment implications

The real question on the table, if you think there’s a chance (as I do) that social gaming will develop along the very lucrative lines of console gaming, is how to make money from the idea that digital/mobile gamers aren’t as “casual” as they may seem.  Using the shrink-wrapped game industry as a model, I think one should look for companies that:

–control distribution

–can charge by the device for use, and

–are able to attract large numbers of hard-core gamers who provide a steady stream of recurring revenue–whether by buying game downloads, microtransactions or advertising.

Ideally, this would seem to mean finding social network companies that have their own game subsidiaries.  As far as I’m aware, the only publicly traded ones exist in Japan.  The worry about companies like DeNA and Gree (I own both) is whether they will be able to exporting their very successful domestic market model to the rest of the world.  All the Japanese firms are trying, and aiming either at China or the US.  But it’s too early to tell.


MSFT’s 3Q11: signs of Windows weakness

the results

After the close of the market in New York on Thursday April 28th, MSFT reported its 3Q11 (MSFT’s fiscal year ends in June) results.  The company earned $.56 per share for the three months (+24% year on year), on revenue of $16.4 billion (+13%).  A non-recurring tax benefit raised the final per share tally by $.05, to $.61.  This compares with the Wall Street consensus estimate of $.56.

MSFT shares dropped by 3% in Friday trading, in a flat market for IT.  INTC, the second member of the “Wintel alliance,” whose shares tend to  trade more or less in line with those of MSFT, rose, in contrast, by 1.5%.

the details

picky points (symptoms of analyst’s disease)

–MSFT continues to show impressive control of operating expenses.  Despite this, operating income for the quarter was up by only 10.3% year on year.  That’s less than the rate of increase in revenue–not what you’d expect from a software company.

–The company spent $10.3 billion, or a tad less than 60% of net income, over the first nine months of fiscal 2011 buying back its own stock.  That’s far above the $2.2 billion in new issuance (presumably from exercise of employee stock options) over the same period.  Outstanding shares are down by about 4% year on year–meaning around 4% of the advance in per share income comes, not from an increase in the bottom line, but from shrinkage of the denominator used in the calculation.

more important things

MSFT has five divisions, two big ones, one medium-sized and two that you can safely ignore if you just want a general picture of where growth is likely to come from.  In size order, giving the percent of operating income each represented in fiscal 2011 to date, and year on year growth for 3Q11, the divisions are:

Business (meaning MS Office and related productivity tools)      43.5% of operating earnings, 24.5% year on year growth in 3Q

Windows (the PC operating system)          38.7% of operating earnings, 10% year on year decline

Server and Tools          20% of operating income, 11.7% year on year growth

Entertainment + Devices (X-Box, cellphones…)          5.4% of operating income, 50% year on year growth

Online Services          -7.6% of operating income (a loss of $1.8 billion), a 10.% increase in the year on year loss.

the numbers need a bit of tweaking

Windows 7  launched in late October 2009.  So year-ago sales were flattered by the rush to buy the new product (and ditch Vista).  Office 2010 debuted in June 2010.  Anyone who bought Office 2007 in the runup to launch of the new version got a free upgrade.  Revenue was booked when the upgrade was redeemed, not when the sale was made–meaning that revenues in the Business segment during the year-ago quarter were unusually weak.

MSFT thinks the true rate of the Business segment revenue growth was 13%, not the 20% reported.  Conversely, it believes the decline in the PC market it saw in 3Q11 was 1%-3%, less than the 4.5% drop in sales it posted.

MSFT’s take on the PC market…

According to the company, netbook sales were down 40% year on year, business PCs were up 9% and consumer PCs were down 8%MSFT thinks that emerging markets represent “nearly half” of global PC shipments.

…vs. INTC’s

In simple terms, INTC (see my latest post on the company) is saying that the lion’s share of PC growth is coming in the emerging world, where consultants like Gartner or IDS, who are projecting lackluster growth in the PC market this year, have limited ability to collect data.  The two consultants are mistakenly extrapolating the present weakness in the US and Europe to include the developing world.  As a result their unit sales projections are too low.  INTC, which does over half its business in developing countries, says it has a much better look at demand through its warehouse and sales staffs–and business is better than the consultants think.

In a nutshell, MSFT sees the same picture the consultants do.

my thoughts

I don’t think netbooks are an important factor.  If they comprised 5% of the total PC market a year ago and that’s been cut in half, the resulting unit volume decline is 2.5%.  But they use low-cost Atom processors and Windows 7 Starter, which does little more than start the machine.  So they’re not a commensurate revenue loss.  Also,  to some degree buyers have switched to low-end laptops, which carry higher revenue and profits for both MSFT and INTC.

Macs are a factor, but not the key one, in my opinion.  Macs are growing much faster than the overall PC industry.  They use INTC chips but the AAPL operating system.  However, although Macs represent over 10% of the PCs sold in the US, they’re less than 4% of the world’s unit purchases.  Yes, they’ve been gaining half a point to a point of market share per year, but that probably means less than a 1% unit volume increase for INTC.

The MSFT management didn’t respond to an analyst’s question about piracy, which, in my experience, is rampant in the Pacific.  My guess is that non-branded “white box” computers with unauthorized copies of Windows software are a big part of the difference between MSFT’s experience and INTC’s.  There’s no way of knowing for sure, though, so MSFT’s judgment not to broach the topic is probably its best tack.

One other interesting MSFT management comment about INTC:  The MSFT CFO suggested that maybe the biggest reason for INTC’s good results was its ability to raise prices.  Although he didn’t say this, what seemed to me to be implied is that INTC can raise prices in a way MSFT can’t.  In other words, through constant innovation in chip size, speed, power consumption, INTC has a better value proposition for customers than MSFT does.  I think that’s right, but it’s funny to hear it from the lips of MSFT.

the stock

MSFT is guiding to a 4Q11 about in line with results from 3Q11.  This would bring full-year results to about $2.60 a share.  I think we’ve already seen the crest of the current product cycle with the launches of Windows 7 and Office 2010.  So fiscal 2012 will likely show eps growth at a much slower pace than the likely 24% gain this year.  Let’s pencil in 12%.

If so, the stock is trading at about 9X forward earnings, has net cash of around $4.50 a share, generates free cash flow and yields about 2.5%.  That looks cheap to me.  It’s hard to figure where the upside is going to come from, though.  Certainly, there are isolated interesting products, but I’m not sure there’s anything big or dramatic enough to move the needle for a giant like MSFT and engage investors’ imaginations. So value-oriented investors, the prime potential buyers of MSFT, may well worry that the stock will remain the “value trap” it has been for the last decade.

Activision’s 3Q10: plusses and minuses

the results

After the New York close last Thursday, ATVI reported its September 2010 quarterly earnings results.  On an adjusted basis, earnings per share were $.12 vs. the analysts’ consensus estimate of $.09 and the company’s guidance of $.08.

At the same time, despite the CEO, Bobby Kotick, citing “the continued strength in our business and our confidence in our continued execution,” ATVI revised down its expectations for the December quarter by about 4%, saying it was equal parts unfavorable foreign exchange movements (presumably meaning costs denominated in non-dollar currencies) and increasing competition in its Activision console game business.  On this news, ATVI stock dropped about 3% in Friday trading.

the details

August was a busy month for Blizzard:

–It launched its long-awaited StarCraft II, which sold 1.5 million copies in its first two days and 3 million in its first thirty days.  The fact that ATVI provided no information for the full quarter suggests sales slowed dramatically after that, however.

–It finally got government permission to launch the second expansion of World of Warcraft, named Wrath of the Lich King,in mainland China.  This was enough to push global WoW subscriber numbers decisively above 11 million+, where it had been stuck for some time, to 12 million.

For the yearend holiday season:

–WoW:  Cataclysm, the third WoW expansion, will be released on December 7th.

–Call of Duty:  Black Ops launches on November 9th.  Pre-sales for Black Ops have apparently been stronger than for Modern Warfare 2, which was ATVI’s blockbuster success of 2009.

–ATVI will also have its usual assortment of new Tony Hawk, music (DJ Hero 2) and James Bond games.

ATVI now has close to $3 billion in cash on its balance sheet.  The company generated about $1.2 billion in cash over the past twelve months, half of which it has used since February to buy $600 million worth of stock (or 55 million shares, 4% of the amount outstanding) at an average cost of $10.90 or so.

stepping back

ATVI has been a disappointing stock this year and a severe laggard since the market bottom in March 2009.  What can we expect from now on?

Here are the company’s year-to-date revenues and earnings by operating segment:

Activision Publishing:   revenues $983 million, operating loss $88 million

Blizzard:  revenues $1086 million, operating income $559 million.

This compares with an operating loss from the Activision segment of $49 million in the first nine months of 2009 and an operating profit of $393 million from Blizzard over the same period.

You might (correctly) say that this is not an entirely fair snapshot of ATVI’s results.  The Activision segment is highly seasonally skewed toward the December quarter.  Activision games also have their biggest sales in the US and European markets, both of which have been hardest hit by the financial crisis.  However, the figures also points to two realities:  the sudden maturation/contraction of the traditional video game console market, and (I think) that the cost structures of the game software companies are still geared for expansion.  In other words, there is still considerable cost-cutting to do.

When Activision and Blizzard merged a few years ago, I imagined the resulting company as the marriage of two equals:  Vivendi, the former owner of Blizzard, got better management for its games unit + a share in a viable shrink-wrapped software business; pre-merger Activision got access to a very talented group of developers + a share of a growing online subscription business in Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games.

Today, the picture looks much different.  Yes, Activision management doubtless helped Blizzard expand–and finally publish Star Craft II. But the key difference is due to the collapse of the traditional video game business.  That’s what the numbers above show.

where to from here?

It seems to me that ATVI is trying to reposition itself, both in reality and in the minds of investors, as an incubator/administrative hub for MMORPGs.  It already has the immensely successful World of Warcraft. It has just launched Star Craft II, which it hopes will be a second.  And it is positioning the Call of Duty, franchise, and Black Ops in particular, to be much more like a MMORPG than a traditional console game.

In addition, ATVI says Blizzard is cooking up an as yet unidentified new MMORPG.  And the company has hired the team that created Halo for MSFT to produce a fifth.

The growth investor “dream,” then, is that Star Craft emulates Warcraft in becoming a source of $300-$400 million in annual income over the next few years.  And that it is followed by at least one other success–time frame unknown.  It would also be helpful if some combination of reduced costs/higher revenue have the traditional Activision games turning a profit again.

On the other hand, eps will be around $.75 for 2010.  What about 2011?  The launch of Star Craft II looks like it generated operating income of about $160 million in the September quarter.  Let’s assume ATVI produces an expansion pack next year that, to pluck a figure out of the air, generates half of the operating profit the game itself did, or about $80 million.  Let’s also say that Blizzard overall, ex the Star Craft expansion pack, grows by $50 million next year.  And let’s assume that the shrink-wrapped software business chips in an extra $30 million in 2011.  Maybe cost-cutting helps, maybe a better economy–and ATVI has always had a knack for identifying new trends.  That all ads up to flat earnings.

In any event, matching 2010’s earnings in 2011 is possible, if a tad on the optimistic side.

On the one hand, I find it hard to be confident that eps will be any higher than that.  On the other, the company has no debt and is immensely cash generative.  The prospective multiple is 12x-13x, ex the cash, which I think is reasonable.  And ATVI is waiting in the wings to buy more stock just a few percent below today’s price.

My bottom line:  For now, I think the stock goes sideways.  I’m not in a hurry to sell and I’d be tempted to trade it if it spikes up.  I’d also use it as a source of cash if another, really good, idea comes along.

ATVI’s June 2010 results: online strong, shrink-wrapped software weak

the report

ATVI reported June quarter earnings after the close of trading in New York last Thursday.  Earnings per share on a GAAP basis were $.17 vs. $.15 in the second quarter of 2009.  On a non-GAAP basis, they were $.06 vs. $.08 in the second quarter of 2009.

The company forecast third quarter results that were slightly below sell-side analysts’ estimates, and it reaffirmed–but did not raise–full-year guidance.

Wall Street didn’t like any of this.  The stock fell 6.5%, to $10.99, in Friday trading.

Why not?

GAAP vs. non-GAAP

ATVI reports revenues and earnings two ways.  One is the way that Generally Accepted Accounting Principles require.  The second is a non-GAAP method that the company feels gives pertinent information that GAAP doesn’t.  Lots of companies do this.  In ATVI’s case, the issue is how to report the purchase of game software that has online content.  GAAP requires the company to estimate how long the customer will use that software and to spread the revenue, and associated costs, over the estimated period of time.  ATVI’s non-GAAP reporting shows the revenue and costs recognized all at once.

2Q2010 earnings are much higher on a GAAP basis than non-GAAP because last year was a big one for online content.  The positive glow is still being reflected in GAAP results this year.  Non-GAAP shows only the cash coming in today.

The level of earnings isn’t really what the market reacted to on Friday, though.  The composition of earnings was the issue.

Blizzard is doing fine…

Worlds of Warcraft continues to plug along, with about 11.5 million subscribers who paid $299 million to ATVI to play the game during the second quarter.  That’s up 3% from the $290 million they kicked in during the comparable period of 2009.

More important, ATVI made operating income of $155 million from WoW this quarter, up 16% from the $134 million it earned in June of last year.

Starcraft II is finally out

Starcraft is the second of Blizzard’s signature titles.  The long- awaited sequel to the original Starcraft title (1998) came out late last month.  The only information ATVI has released so far on revenues is that the game has sold 1.5 million copies in its first two days.  This would be the biggest launch in pc game history.

Just as encouraging, Blizzard says that while Starcraft online play is steadily building gamers are playing Warcraft online just as heavily as they were before the Starcraft launch.

The hope is, of course, that Blizzard can turn Starcraft, which has fanatic followers all over the world, into something akin to another Warcraft, generating large amounts of recurring revenue.

…not so for Activision

The Activision side of ATVI generated revenues of $333 million during the quarter, down 26% year on year.  It made an operating loss of $53 million during the three months vs. operating income of $21 million in the June quarter of 2009.

Yes, the overall market for traditional video games is weaker and this is the offseason (Activision makes most of its money around the year-end holidays).  But the company also had a couple of clunkers among its second quarter launches.

To some degree, these negatives were offset by continuing strong performance from Call of Duty:  Modern Warfare 2. Online sales of add-on map packs are very strong.  And the game remains the number one of its type in many markets.

The next iteration of the franchise, Call of Duty:  Black Ops, is also outdoing MW2 in early pre-sales.  And the company has new versions of its staple Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk games, as well as DJ Hero ready to meet seasonal demand.

what to do with the stock?

ATVI shares have been severe market laggards from the lows of March 2009.  So the first observation one would make is that holding the stock so far, as I have done, has been a big error.

ATVI’s problems have been of three types:

–although Blizzard has performed extremely well, the overall video game market has been weak.

–the collapse of the music genre blindsided Activision, creating a large writedown last year

–worries about management stability have arisen, given the departure of key executives from the Call of Duty franchise and recent reports of CEO Bobby Kotick-related legal action.

On the other hand, the company owns Warcraft, Starcraft, Call of Duty, and has new potentially significant (but we don’t know what they are yet) products coming from both Blizzard and Bungie (the studio that made Halo).

The company is saying it will earn $.72 a share in 2010, meaning the stock is trading at under 15x times earnings.  And ATVI has bought 31 million shares of its stock through the end of June at an average of just under $11 each.  So–rightly or wrongly–it sees value at these levels.

So to me the stock still looks cheap.

Personally, I’m continuing to hold, but the leash is getting shorter.  The risk, of course, as it is in any case like this, is that I’m letting ego get in the way of common sense–holding on because I somehow need to be right, rather than to make money.