Activision Blizzard (ATVI 0.71%) shares shot up to a new high following blockbuster second-quarter operating results. Among the highlights were a surprising 4% sales boost as the video-game developer beat management's revenue guidance for the sixth straight quarter.
Below, we'll look at a few trends that aren't as widely covered as those headline figures but provide important insight into Activision's business.
Record profits without a new franchise release
Activision's $1.3 billion of operating income over the past six months set a new record for the business. What's even more impressive about that result, though, is that the company generated over $500 million of quarterly operating profit despite having no full game releases in any of its core franchises.
That's another first for the developer, and it demonstrates the power of Activision's move away from a launch-centric business model -- where most of the sales from a game are lumped around the release date -- to a year-round approach that peppers players with frequent but smaller content releases and upgrades.
There are many benefits to this move, including more predictable revenue gains and lower risk around content releases. But the biggest is increased profitability. Operating margin jumped to 39% of sales over the first half of the year, from 36% in the year-ago period.
About that sinking audience
The company's total audience was 407 million, which marked a decrease from the prior quarter's 431 million. Look behind the headline figure, and you'll see evidence of healthy gamer reach.
The Blizzard side of the business set an engagement record as active users jumped 38% year over year to 46 million. This audience has now doubled over the past two years with help from new intellectual property like Overwatch and the continued expansion of core franchises including World of Warcraft.
The Activision segment's reach ticked down but stayed close to 50 million as a huge pool of gamers interacts with the portfolio of Call of Duty content that's out there (including a hit Black Ops Zombie chapter) ahead of the next franchise launch in early November. The division also got a surprising boost from a Crash Bandicoot release that, despite being available for just two days in June, topped the sales charts that month.
King Digital saw its active gamer base drop to 314 million from 342 million, and so the division accounted for nearly all of the broader company's audience decline. The good news is that per player engagement increased, and so did spending. As a result, sales and operating income are healthy even as the base of casual players drops.
Laying the foundation for Call of Duty
Management has a few initiatives under way to try to get King Digital's audience size growing again, and in the meantime, it plans to improve monetization with help from premium, video-based advertising. Its major product release slate for the second half of the year is also packed, and it includes a Hearthstone expansion on the Blizzard side and new chapters in the Activision tentpole franchises of Destiny and Call of Duty.
While the company has done a good job deepening its brand portfolio and spreading out its revenue collection through expansion packs, a lot of the business still rides on huge releases like these.
That's why CEO Bobby Kotick and his executive team are planning an expensive marketing blitz ahead of the Nov. 3 launch of Call of Duty: WWII. Early indications, including demand for the game trailer and hands-on reviews out of the E3 convention, have been positive. But investors will be looking forward to more concrete indications on this title's outlook when Activision releases stats on the beta testing that's starting in late August.