Video game maker extraordinaire Activision Blizzard (NASDAQ:ATVI) is coming off one of its best years ever. In 2014, the company had the No. 2 game of the year, and best-selling new release ever, in Destiny. The latest edition of Call of Duty was the year's No. 1 selling game and the Skylanders franchise continued its dominance of the kid's game segment.
Even World of Warcraft -- which has seen active player numbers decline since 2012 -- experienced a big jump in users, from just over 7 million earlier in 2014 to more than 10 million at the launch of the Warlords of Draenor expansion pack. Factor in the company's break from Vivendi, and a lot of great things happened for the company over the past year.
With earnings set to be released Feb. 5 for the fourth quarter -- which includes the critically important holiday shopping season -- expectations are pretty high. And while things are mostly good, there are some big questions about the future that we could get a little more insight on. Let's take a closer look at some key areas.
WoW and CoD in decline?
While the early numbers for WoW -- based on the big jump in subscribers before the release, and the 3.3 million sales at release -- are positive, the story with WoW is exactly how long those new users will stay around to pay the monthly fee.
Furthermore, CoD sales have slipped for the past two releases, despite itsw remaining the best-selling game each year. It will be interesting to see just how many units were sold in the quarter. The franchise has proven remarkably durable, and the developers have done a solid job keeping dedicated players engaged. However, I can't help but wonder if -- anecdotally -- more gamers haven't done the same thing I have, and not purchased CoD: Advanced Warfare, and instead continued to play Destiny.
Newer franchises offsetting those declines?
This has been the real strength of Activision Blizzard's business: the ability to develop new titles that turn into huge -- and long-term -- hits. Skylanders and now Destiny are the two most recent, with the latest Skylanders game remaining the top game even in the face of stiff competition from Walt Disney Co's Infinity 2.0, featuring some of the House of Mouse's most famous Marvel characters.
With Destiny, it will be interesting to hear if the user engagement levels remained as high as first reported after the release of The Dark Below, the first expansion. While initial reviews of the game were mixed, user engagement was very high. The big question is whether the expansion packs will maintain that user engagement.
Minding the GAAP
Because of the way Activision Blizzard has to report certain digital sales -- for example, if it sells a game and its planned expansion packs in a bundle, the company can't report the revenue for the expansions until they launch -- the company reports "adjusted" results that reflect when it has been paid for things like expansion packs that it will deliver later. This is especially important at launch of new games like Destiny and Call of Duty.
In the third quarter, adjusted earnings per share of $0.23 was more than double the company's guidance, and adjusted revenue of $1.17 billion was the highest ever in the quarter. The company's guidance for this quarter is for $2.2 billion in adjusted sales, and $0.86 adjusted earnings per share.
For the full year, the company is projecting $1.35 in adjusted EPS and $0.91 on a GAAP basis.
The very nature of Activision Blizzard's business means there will always be questions about the viability of at least one of its core franchises. So far -- and we're talking about for the better part of a decade -- the company has shown a real ability to develop content, and keep it relevant and in demand by gamers.
From a financial standpoint, Activision Blizzard is a rarity in the video game market, being able to stay consistently profitable, while its peers ride the ups and downs of hit titles and their release schedules. The sheer number of high-quality titles the company owns provides a big hedge against the cyclical nature of many of its competitors.
Personally, I'm expecting a blowout quarter, but whether that happens or not, I'm not selling any shares: Activision Blizzard is built to last. After all, there are always more great games in development: