Activision Blizzard (NASDAQ:ATVI) owns many of the biggest, most successful brands in the video game industry. Call of Duty dominates the sales charts every year, as does the kids' game Skylanders. And even in its second decade, World of Warcraft remains the No. 1 subscription online game of its kind.
But some of those hit franchises are starting to show their age. The subscriber base for Warcraft is 2 million users below its peak, even after the spike from last year's hit expansion. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, meanwhile, was likely the second straight yearly installment to sell fewer copies than its predecessor did.
Still, Activision's future is about much more than just those two aging blockbuster brands. With that in mind, let's look at what investors can expect when the game publisher reports earnings results next week.
Wall Street expects the company to announce flat fourth-quarter revenue growth on Feb. 5, with sales coming in at $2.2 billion. That would put Activision at $4.8 billion for all of 2014, just shy of the $5 billion record it set in 2012 -- before the transition to next-generation consoles shook up the industry.
Analysts see Activision's earnings per share climbing by a healthy 10% to $0.88 a share. That target is above management's forecast from early November, but for good reason.
Clues in the last three months suggest Activision closed the year in strong fashion. Revenue figures from research firm NPD indicated strong video game sales over the holidays, and that Activision dominated with Call of Duty for the sixth straight year. Advanced Warfare was the top-selling game in the U.S. and around the world in 2014. Sure, sales might have slipped as compared to the previous year's Ghosts title, but Activision likely made up for that drop with more profitable digital revenue from in-game purchases and expansion packs.
Meanwhile, the Skylanders franchise beat back Disney's Infinity challenge for the second consecutive year. In fact, Trap Team outsold Infinity 2.0 by 17% last year, according to Activision. Despite major competitive challenges, Activision's lead with both of these brands looks solid.
Outlook for new franchises
But the biggest news for investors next week could involve Activision's new crop of franchises. Destiny, for one, overcame weak critical reviews to post a solid launch. Management should have more to say about the long-term plans for the brand. Remember, Activision and developer Bungie struck a deal on Destiny that stretches out for a decade, so we can expect plenty of news on that score.
Activision should also update investors on Call of Duty Online, which launched this month. That title represents a few strategic wins, including the publisher's first push into the massive Chinese gaming market. It is also a significant jump into the free-to-play business model that Activision has been gaining experience in through games such as Hearthstone.
Management expects Call of Duty Online's user base to eventually dwarf those of all of its other gaming communities. That points to potentially huge sales from in-game purchases in 2015.
But even better, it demonstrates Activision is not just relying on what has worked in the past. The publisher is taking smart risks by exploring new markets and new business models, which will be critical to keeping it on top of this competitive and dynamic industry.