Activision Blizzard (NASDAQ:ATVI) didn't book record results last year -- but it got close. Revenue clocked in at $4.8 billion, 3% below the video game publisher's best-ever year of 2012.
That's impressive considering that Activision had to deal with a massive console transition while making the best of a few aging franchises. Financially, 2014 also included record high profit and near-record operating cash flow.
But investors care more about the future than the past. That's particularly true for a company such as Activision, which needs to nail several major product launches each year to keep growth on track. With that in mind, let's look at the company's outlook for 2015.
The Activision side of the business clearly has momentum to build on. The Call of Duty franchise led global sales charts in 2014, Skylanders: Trap Team comfortably outsold competing Disney's (NYSE: DIS) Infinity game, and the Destiny rollout was a success.
This year will be about protecting and extending those leads. Downloadable content for Destiny and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare will keep digital sales going through most of 2015. Then Activision will launch the next chapter in the Call of Duty franchise in November. We don't know much about that title yet except that it has been in development for three years by Treyarch, the company behind the franchise sales record holder, Black Ops. Activision expects this year's installment to sell at least as well as Advanced Warfare did.
Meanwhile, Call of Duty Online, the free-to-play game for China, won't contribute much to this year's results as it slowly builds up its player base. But the game has the potential to establish one of Activision's biggest gamer communities over time, so investors should watch for updates on how engagement is going in that title. Finally, management in a conference call with analysts last week said the company has several "unannounced initiatives" also planned for the year. Stay tuned.
Blizzard and cash
The outlook for the Blizzard side of the business isn't nearly as strong. Sure, there will be a new free-to-play game, Heroes of the Storm, along with fresh content for the hit Hearthstone brand. But Blizzard's record 2014 results were driven by the release of Diablo III and a major expansion in the World of Warcraft franchise. There won't be comparable launches on either front in 2015. The new Overwatch title looks promising, but management isn't targeting any gains from that game just yet.
Activision expects to use some of its growing cash pile to pay down debt, buy back shares, and hike dividends. To that end, it recently announced a 15% boost to its annual dividend, as well as a $250 million debt payment and a new $750 million stock repurchase plan.
The nuts and bolts
Activision's 2015 forecast calls for overall sales of $4.4 billion and profit of $1.15 per share. Those figures represent significant drops from the prior year: revenue is projected to fall by 8% while earnings dip by 19%.
Some of the shortfall comes from foreign currency issues, which don't have long-run implications on the business. Still, investors can expect Activision to post weaker operating results this year.
But here's the good news. At this time in 2014 Activision had only five AAA franchises in its portfolio. In fact, just three, Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and Skylanders, accounted for 80% of sales in 2013 and a much higher portion of profit. The No. 1 risk in Activision's 2013 annual report to investors warned: "Due to this dependence on a limited number of franchises, the failure to achieve anticipated results by one or more products ... could have a material adverse effect on our business."
Activision will have 10 major franchises in its portfolio by the end of this year if all goes according to plan, double 2014's total. That should make for steadier growth over the next few years.