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Analyst: Wary EA Investors 'Betting Against' SWTOR

Analyst Mike Hickey says investors aren't about to fully bet on Electronic Arts' Star Wars: The Old Republic just yet -- no matter how many factors make it seem like a good idea, there are more that are concerning, he warns.
A hit MMO can be an excellent thing for a game publisher's investors -- depending on the business model, it can offer a certain degree of predictable revenue. For example, there's a certain degree to which World of Warcraft subscription revenues are a sure thing each quarter for Activision Blizzard. With the Star Wars brand and BioWare at the helm of Star Wars: The Old Republic, it looks possible to make a case that Electronic Arts has a very good shot -- it seems safe, at least, for the publisher's investors to feel optimistic if not confident in the game's potential. But EA's investors may not be ready to trust so easily, says Janco Partners analyst Mike Hickey. There are other factors surrounding EA at the moment that may weigh on their confidence, and the shares by extension -- people are waiting for more clarity on the Playfish portfolio and on the outcome of the Activision lawsuit, for example. Mainly, though, Hickey says EA's investors know how difficult the MMO space is, and what an enormous risk it is to launch a title of SWTOR's scale -- and that in fact they may feel pessimistic. "We believe many investors are betting against SWTOR achieving market success, provided the company's (Warhammer Online from Mythic) and industry's track record at releasing successful new MMOs," suggests Hickey. EA's last big MMORPG effort, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, became something of a cautionary tale in setting high expectations for a major MMO launch. Much was made of the title's potential to reinvent player combat and social dynamics in an online world, and the outspoken enthusiasm of Mythic co-founder Mark Jacobs played a role in the broad view that WAR represented EA's ambitious bid to challenge WoW. But the title's launch was anticlimactic; despite drawing an impressive 500,000 subscribers in its first week, that number saw a rapid drop-off soon after, and a wave of server consolidations followed, giving the game's humble performance quite a visible profile. Very recently, Realtime Worlds' All Points Bulletin gave game industry-watchers a new reminder of the devastating impact unsuccessful MMO launches can have on a company's operations, as the major studio closed, upending Scotland's game industry. Other factors Hickey notices that might keep EA's shares a bit weighted include "a suspected subscription pricing model versus a market that is quickly transitioning to free to play, generally modest previews of the game and elevated development expense and suspected aggressive royalty to LucasArts."

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