While Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Sony (NYSE:SNE) have received the bulk of gaming-related coverage going into the holiday shopping season, Nintendo (NASDAQOTH:NTDOY) could be the single company most poised to benefit.
Although Nintendo's new console, the Wii U, has been a total failure so far, the machine could finally be picking up steam. Nintendo's newest Mario title has received rave reviews, while Nintendo's recently released handheld games should ensure a strong quarter for its 3DS.
PlayStation 4's strong start
Sony has already sold more than 1 million PlayStation 4 video game consoles, a number that is likely to increase significantly in the coming months. The PlayStation 4 has yet to be released in many major markets. Sony doesn't even plan to release the PlayStation 4 in its home market of Japan until next February.
The successful launch of the console should benefit Sony tremendously, particularly because it's selling the PlayStation 4 near breakeven. Its previous console, the PlayStation 3, was initially sold at a heavy loss -- by some estimates, at more than $300 per console.
Unlike Nintendo, however, Sony is an enormous company with a multitude of diverse operations. Yet, many of these businesses have stumbled in recent years. Sony's TV division has lost money in nearly every quarter for most of the last decade.
The TV business had returned to profitability earlier this year, but fell back on its money-losing ways last quarter. In October, Sony reported a nearly $200 million loss and slashed its expectations for the future.
Going forward, Sony will look to gaming (along with imaging technology and mobile devices) as a key growth driver. The PlayStation's 4 successful launch, then, is a good sign, but will take some time to play out.
Money-losing Xbox as a spinoff opportunity?
Unlike the PlayStation 4, Microsoft's next CEO might not see the Xbox as such an important piece of Microsoft's business. Although outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer defended the Xbox as a core Microsoft product at last week's investor meeting, Stephen Elop, one of several possible candidates to succeed Ballmer, would reportedly consider spinning the division off or selling it outright.
Many analysts, including those at Nomura, would be in favor of such a move. Nomura believes the Xbox is costing Microsoft billions, and the investment doesn't justify the potential rewards. Even if the Xbox were making Microsoft money, it would pale in comparison to the money Microsoft makes off its big products -- namely, Windows and Office.
In short, even though Microsoft also had a successful console launch (selling as many units as Sony), it isn't likely to affect the company much -- certainly not in the near term and possibly not in long term if Microsoft gets rid of the Xbox.
Nintendo could be setting up to surprise
Of the three companies, this holiday shopping season is by far the most crucial for Nintendo, partially because it's the only company that relies exclusively on video game sales, and also because of its recent failures.
Sales of the Wii U have fallen far short of Nintendo's own expectations -- prior to its launch, Nintendo had expected to ship 5 million units by April; as of the end of September, it had shipped fewer than 4 million.
Nintendo's management had promised Wii U sales of 9 million by the end of this upcoming March. That once seemed unlikely, and though it's probably still a long shot, Nintendo's recently released Super Mario 3D World could help to sell a few million more Wii Us. The game has received nearly unanimous praise from critics; The Verge called it "arguably the best game to come out this holiday season on any platform."
Then there's Nintendo's handheld, the 3DS. It had already been the best-selling console for most of the year, but got a big boost in October with the release of Nintendo's new Pokemon games (both titles were themselves major best-sellers). November should also be a strong month -- Zelda: A Link Between Worlds has, like Super Mario 3D World, received high praise.
The video game stock for the holiday season
I've been a frequent critic of Nintendo, and though I believe the company is ultimately challenged (perhaps fatally) by the slow rise of mobile gaming, it's the one console company poised to benefit the most from this holiday shopping season.
While many industry observers may be focused on new hardware from Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo has the must-have software. Sales of those titles could drive further Nintendo hardware adoption, at least in the near term, and with depressed expectations, Nintendo could surprise to the upside.