It's time to get excited again about the online gaming industry in China. After a pair of blowout quarters last night from two of the five stand-alone players -- with the other three set to report over the next few trading days -- it's shaping up to be a growth market again.
It certainly didn't seem that way a year ago, when China was cracking down on Internet cafes and limiting the amount of time that minors could spend in multiplayer fantasy games.
If last night's reports are any indication, the niche is in a good groove again. Let's go over all five of the key players, starting with last night's stars.
The company behind the popular Fantasy Westward Journey game reported better-than-expected fourth-quarter results last night. Wall Street was projecting a flat quarter, but NetEase was anything but flat. Revenues climbed 15% to $85.3 million. Earnings clocked in at $0.41 a share, well ahead of the $0.32 a share it earned a year ago and the $0.30 a share that analysts had been targeting. A tax refund helped pad this quarter's showing, but that benefit accounted for less than half of the quarter's profit growth.
NetEase's online business also grew; online games now account for 81% of the company's revenue.
The original Fantasy Westward Journey remains a workhorse, even after NetEase has put out a pair of sequels. At its peak this past quarter, a record 1.5 million players were online in the virtual fantasy world.
True to its moniker, Giant took some giant steps last night. Fourth-quarter profits more than tripled to $0.19 a share. Revenue surged 152% to $59.6 million. Analysts were asleep at the wheel here, too. They were looking for Giant to post a profit of just $0.16 a share, with $57.0 million on top.
Giant's rolling thanks to the booming popularity of its ZT Online games (available in both free and premium platforms) as well as a second internally developed game -- Giant Online -- that is currently in closed beta.
Giant still trails NetEase in sheer size. Its gaming revenue is smaller. It also has a smaller audience, with 1.4 million active paying accounts and peak concurrent usage of 983,000 this past quarter. Both companies command similar market caps, though, thanks to Giant's impressive growth.
Tonight the earnings stage belongs to The9. The company that publishes Blizzard's popular World of Warcraft franchise in China has been struggling lately. Once Activision
Even if you can get past that drama, The9 is still a financial laggard. Sure, revenue climbed 35% during the third quarter, but profitability was cut in half. Operating expenses nearly doubled, eating into margins. The9 has now missed Wall Street's estimates in its last two quarters. The company is expected to post another dip on the bottom line, but maybe it will rise above that looming pitfall.
Don't assume that's just wishful thinking on my part. NetEase also missed analyst targets during its third quarter, but clearly, it was able to shine this time around.
When Rule Breakers recommended both Shanda and NetEase in its January 2005 issue, Shanda was the leading online gaming company in China. It slipped a year later, but the company has spent the past few quarters clawing back.
Padding its portfolio of multiplayer fantasy games with ad-supported casual games is working well for Shanda. Analysts expect the company to grow its fourth-quarter profits by 50% when it reports Monday.
Joining Giant Interactive as one of last year's two online-gaming Chinese IPOs, Perfect World delivers richly rendered 3-D multiplayer games. Its namesake title is its big one, though the company's pipeline is also rich.
Perfect World has only reported as a public company once before, surprising analysts then. Let's see what the next quarter looks like when the company reports Monday morning.
Five games worth playing
All five companies are trading at attractive multiples. Based on this new year's projected net income, the quintet fetches just 12-17 times forward profitability.
Sure, a lot can go wrong for any of these companies. The risks here range from individual events -- like The9's relationship with either EA or Blizzard souring -- to the government trying to suppress the entire niche's booming popularity.
However, given the prospects of playing the hot Chinese market at valuation multiples that seem tame even by a slow market's standards, I think you really should find a way to get into this game.
Want to learn more about NetEase and Shanda? They were recommended to Motley Fool Rule Breakers premium research newsletter subscribers a couple of years ago. Find out how to play the growth stock game with a 30-day trial subscription offer today. Activision and NetEase are Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections.
Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has been a fan of China's high-margin gaming stocks for a long time. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. The Fool has a disclosure policy.