The quarter itself wasn't horrendous. Revenue growth of 47% to $91.6 million was just shy of the $92.9 million that analysts were banking on, but the bottom line still nailed Wall Street's $0.84-a-share target.
However, cracks in the system have begun to show. The number of active paying customers shrank from 2.2 million during last year's fourth quarter to 1.7 million in its latest quarter.
The company faults seasonality, technical glitches, and a crackdown on cheating for the diminishing audience, but it's still not a pretty sight. Are China's fickle youth moving on to new games, or simply tiring of the genre in general? Investors are starting to hedge their bets now, as shares of Shanda Games
Perfect World offset the dramatic dip in gamer headcount by milking more out of its active users. The average revenue per user rose a sharp 37% compared to last year's fourth quarter, resulting in an ultimate 3% sequential gain on the top line.
The current quarter won't be so lucky. Perfect World projects 14% to 20% year-over-year growth. That's less than the 29% spurt analysts expected, implying flat to negative sequential growth.
Perfect World has spent the past few months cautiously expanding outside of China. It seemed like an advantageous strategy at the time, but now Perfect World's broadened horizons seem like an effort to offset fading organic growth.
It's hard to give up on Perfect World at this point. The company's packing the equivalent of $275 million in a yuan-rich balance sheet. After earning $3.12 a share over the past four quarters, shares of Perfect World were bashed down to just eight times trailing earnings.
It's also too soon to give up on this promising sector. NetEase and Shanda Interactive's
Changyou had 2.4 million active paying accounts during the first three months of this year, sequentially flat. Then again, Changyou didn't experience the huge uptick in revenue per user that Perfect World managed to achieve with its promotional activity.
Giant Interactive delivered an entirely different flavor last night, with active paying gamers climbing a healthy 21%, even though revenue per account took a noticeable step back.
In the end, we can't lump all of these online gaming companies in China together, because they're all clearly working off entirely different playbooks. The one thing that is consistent is that they are all trading at attractively low earnings multiples given the industry's growth potential in a market with a hotter economy than most of the planet.
These are imperfect circumstances, but it's still a Perfect World.
What is your favorite Chinese gaming stock? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.
NetEase.com, Perfect World, and Shanda Interactive Entertainment are Motley Fool Rule Breakers selections. The Fool owns shares of Perfect World. Try any of our Foolish newsletter service, free for 30 days.
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.