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Analysts: Activision To Thrive On StarCraft II, New Business Models

Analysts expect Activision's first fiscal quarter to show up to $600 million in revenues, and after its dramatic month, analysts weigh in on Starcraft II timing, the company's transition to subscription models and more.
Quarterly earnings for major publishers are coming up, and analysts expect a strong turnout for Electronic Arts, THQ and Activision in general. However, it's Activision that is most squarely in analyst sights, after weeks of the Infinity Ward soap opera and the big Bungie deal. Most analysts generally expect Activision to report revenues of $550-$600 million. Signal Hill's Todd Greenwald feels that the biggest issue for investors in Activision is not the recent headlines, but some vaguery surrounding the release of Starcraft II. Greenwald says the game will likely release in the company's third quarter (around the fall-holiday period), rather than in the summer of this year as originally forecast. When it hits, says the analyst, the game can ship 6 million units in its first three months, drumming up $270 million in sales. Wedbush's Michael Pachter believes that the Infinity Ward drama has been overblown in the press, creating a media climate that sees the company as "the Evil Empire, with contentious dealings between the company and employees the norm." But, he points out, in nine years of covering the company as a financial analyst, he's never seen any other court cases between Activision and its employees: "We think that this situation has escalated well beyond what the company intended," he says. "In our view, the company will ultimately resolve this matter, will reach a settlement with the affected employees, and will pay out retention bonuses to keep future losses at Infinity Ward to a minimum," he says. And the $450 million per year-generating Call of Duty: Modern Warfare brand will continue to sell well, he says -- and speculates that a shift in business model is on the way, believing that "Activision intends to transform the game from a packaged product only to a subscription multiplayer game." Even assuming royalties from subscription revenues to be paid to platform-holders, Activision would only need 2 to 5 million subscribers to keep the franchise's revenue levels up and create higher margins, says Pachter. In fact, the analyst believes that Activision's business model transition may be part of what motivated the dispute between the publisher and fired Infinity Ward heads Jason West and Vince Zampella. "We think that the company is on the path to subscriptions, and that West and Zampella did not wish to work on that kind of game, leading to their termination," he says. "We think that over the next two years, Activision will introduce a subscription game, and think that annual Call of Duty revenues and profits will likely rise rather than decline," Pachter concludes. "The market reaction to the lawsuits suggests that investors have the opposite view, which, in our opinion, creates a buying opportunity." Activision reports its fiscal first quarter results this week on Thursday, May 5.

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