Sony Should Focus on Internal Investment & Partnerships Over Acquisitions Ahead of Next PlayStation

“Charity begins at home.”

I believe Sony should focus mostly on this philosophy going into the next generation of consoles, rather than seeking growth through external acquisitions. There’s only so much funding to go around, and I’m betting those precious dollars are used for a combination of internal investment and partnerships with outside teams rather than outright buyouts of major studios.

I’ll now get into why this is such a hot topic, then outline each of my reasons.

Within a mostly innocuous report from the Wall Street Journal on the Japanese gaming giant’s decision to focus on gamers for its next PlayStation gaming console which means building out its portfolio of games (surprise!), the stand-out quote is how its main strategy is bolstering its lineup of games only available on Sony devices.

Then, local site Gematsu got in on the action as it translated a Nikkei report containing somewhat vague comments from Sony Interactive Entertainment President and CEO Jim Ryan about gaming content being of utmost importance and the company considering studio acquisitions as one of its strategies for this reason.

(I’ll note here that every major publisher, shoot every public company, has teams dedicated to merger and acquisition [M&A] research. There have been recent job postings from Sony seeking talent for its M&A team, though I’m not reading into this as much as others.)

Finally, PushSquare published a piece among other media sites on likely targets of Sony’s acquisition bucks. These and more sparked rampant speculation online as to which would be the best fits based on history and existing relationships. I’m here to say the ideal foundation going forward is not built on acquisitions, but rather more investment in what it does best. And that’s its current world class studios, upcoming hardware offerings and productive 3rd party partnerships.

The safer route is absolutely to spend its precious resources in its myriad of internal studios, which have produced modern classics such as The Last of Us by Naughty Dog and God of War from Santa Monica Studio, plus align itself with external companies through partnerships rather than outright acquisitions. The most notable recent example of such a fruitful team-up being Marvel’s Spider-Man from Insomniac Games, which passed a staggering 10 million copies mere months after release last September.

Similarly, I’ll go as far to say I’m not hoping for or betting on acquisitions of any major developers or self-publishers in the near term. This list includes Bungie, Insomniac Games, Kojima Productions and Remedy Entertainment. Rather, there’s a much higher likelihood of one *maybe* two smaller teams that aren’t as cost prohibitive. If forced to pick, my bet is Housemarque. Known for arcade type shoot-em-ups such as Resogun and Alienation, I think it’s really the only smaller team suited for purchase now based on its proclamation that its style of games purely aren’t selling well, plus its affinity for working with the PlayStation team in the past.

Why? Here we go.

1. Major acquisitions are costly, time-consuming and risky.

I get it. It’s fun to speculate. To dream up scenarios where a favorite game developer gets purchased by a platform of choice. It’s just, in reality, acquisitions are usually not ideal compared to partnerships and are a truly massive undertaking presenting a variety of risks.

Acquisitions aren’t just about a big company throwing money at a smaller one. Both parties must consent, really except in the case of ugly hostile takeovers which should absolutely not be a part of Sony’s strategy. It often happens when a company is in need of a financial injection, its growth prospects have depleted or, in extreme cases, bankruptcy is looming. It’s especially trickier the more closely held a company gets, which is the case with many of the private game studios. Even those with hundreds of employees. The decision lies in the hands of a select few, normally with both financial and emotional investment from years of independent operation.

Then there’s the topics of what kind of premium the target will squeeze out of the acquirer, how well do company cultures mesh plus the whole regulatory side, all of which make this process time-consuming and expensive. M&A activity is inherently risky, blending folks that haven’t worked directly together so there’s no guaranteeing the company works as well as a subsidiary. Or there might be layoffs that happen due to redundancies. What I’m getting at is these involve many other factors than merely dollars and cents.

Let’s take a couple examples. One public, one private.

A team like Remedy Entertainment is publicly-traded. The Finnish developer is valued around $115 million in market capitalization. Not a huge figure in the context of Sony’s war chest, though certainly not pocket change compared to other names in this conversation. Not to mention that comes before any sort of projects even starting. And it has investors already. Lots of them. It doesn’t need to be injected with cash, especially with a new game Control next month and a collaboration with South Korea’s Smilegate on its CrossFire franchise. Every indication is Remedy wants to be independent. Even when Microsoft was publishing games like Alan Wake and Quantum Break, it was on its own. Why would execs and investors change their mind now, unless Sony throws some exorbitant amount of dough at it?

Then, our private example is Insomniac Games. Run by industry vet Ted Price, it’s a natural name thrown around due to its history of producing games for PlayStation like the aforementioned Marvel’s Spider-Man. Insomniac is a heck of a studio, it’s been around for decades plus boasts a portfolio of Spyro the Dragon, Ratchet & Clank, Resistance and a personal favorite, 2014’s Sunset Overdrive. It’s also dabbling in virtual reality for the Oculus Rift. So, if it’s operated this long alongside PlayStation, why isn’t it a part of Sony? Exactly. As exhibited by its releases on Microsoft and Facebook (Oculus) platforms, Insomniac seems to value its creative independence above all else. And while we don’t know its valuation, to me this clearly shows its decision-makers haven’t seen a reason to become part of Sony Interactive Entertainment yet.

World class first party games are impossible without investing in internal teams before anything else. Instead of dropping $100 million or more on a Remedy or Insomniac, those funds can be funneled internally towards high quality projects for existing teams.

2. Investment in internal teams is a better use of cash.

At present, Sony Interactive Entertainment Worldwide Studios features a suite of more than a dozen teams. Guerilla Games. Naughty Dog. San Diego. Santa Monica. Media Molecule. Sucker Punch. And more, with a legit laundry list of projects under their belts that define what PlayStation is more than anything else. These will also be the main contributors to Sony’s launch lineup next generation when the (probably named) PlayStation 5 (likely) releases in late 2020.

This is a dazzling entourage of the most talented, prolific teams in all of gaming. They make games specifically for a single company’s platforms, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR presently. Which means they are experts. If the big focus is appealing to the hardcore audience, that means investing in the personnel that make up these excellent studios is of much more importance than trying to attract external talent. Not to mention, it’s more cost effective to retain individual team members at existing studios than to integrate entire teams.

Sony is known for its first party content. It’s why there are 96 million PlayStation 4 consoles shipped to date, not to mention the absurd numbers for prior generations where Sony has 5 of the top 10 best-selling pieces of hardware ever made. World class first party games are impossible without investing in internal teams before anything else. Instead of dropping $100 million or more on a Remedy or Insomniac, those funds can be funneled internally towards high quality projects for existing teams.

A preexisting agreement or relationship between a larger company and smaller development studio or self-publisher doesn’t necessarily precipitate a buyout, or even open the door to discussions on the possibility of one.

3. External partnerships are attractive for both parties.

When we talk partnerships in gaming, this includes stuff like marketing deals, exclusive content, pre-order bonuses and similar incentives to attract players towards one platform above another. As much as exclusives are not ideal, especially for those without multiple systems, it’s a reality.

The reason I think Sony should opt for partnerships over purchases is that from a corporate standpoint, these deals allow for the best of both worlds. Development teams benefit from the backing of a major console manufacturer, especially for advertising spend, while they also remain independent to pursue experimental projects or titles for multiple platforms.

Need a concrete example? Well, I already mentioned one in Insomniac Games. This time, I’d like to bring up Square Enix. I don’t hear anyone calling for Sony to scoop it up just because games like NieR: Automata or Final Fantasy VII Remake have an alignment with PlayStation as timed exclusives. A preexisting agreement or relationship between a larger company and a smaller development studio or self-publisher doesn’t necessarily precipitate a buyout, or even open the door to discussions on the possibility of one.

While a team like Remedy certainly has less output and lower valuation than Square, I view it similarly because of its standing as publicly-traded plus a history with manufacturers other than Sony. Then there’s the case of Kojima Productions. Game design legend Hideo Kojima had an infamous falling out with Konami a few years back, which led to him founding a private studio. When a company is used to being independent, or recently has become so, and it’s not facing financial instability, its asking price goes up plus the attractiveness of being owned by a parent company plummets.

4. Finally, hardware R&D will be the focus of Sony’s gaming budget.

While Sony’s gaming division now leads the overall firm in both sales and operating income, it’s just one of many considerations when budgets are drawn up. All signs point to it being the final year of the PlayStation 4’s life cycle. In the lead-up to a new generation, research and development costs naturally ramp up especially for a console targeting the “core” demographic of gamers, as illustrated above from executive comments. Design and construction aren’t cheap. Not to mention the massive marketing push that will take the better part of next year.

If Sony intends to put out a powerful console in late 2020 with a quality launch lineup, we’re talking a sizeable chunk of its budget dedicated to this endeavor. How much is leftover to use on merger activity? What’s the most effective way for it to balance hardware and software demands? My thought is that most of its budget must be allocated to its next PlayStation and a core offering of exclusive games, which leaves less for M&A prospects at the risk of being spread thin.

To wrap up this admittedly lengthy post, while I’d never entirely rule out the possibility of acquisitions, I think the contingent calling for Sony to dole out cash on multiple studios has unrealistic expectations. Namely because of where the firm is at in the console cycle. It already has so many talented studios in which it should invest to spur growth, then continue to reinforce its relationships with third parties. This is the ideal route to meet its goal of strengthening its software portfolio, plus has added benefits for external companies that have fought hard for self-sufficiency over the years.

It’s flashy to talk about studio acquisitions, almost casually tossing around names. And it’s certainly more boring to hope that a company stays consistent with its current strategy even when it’s doing quite well. In this case, I’m both hoping and betting that Sony keeps it boring like Proposition Joe said (The Wire hear me). Because its business ain’t broke, literally and figuratively, so it doesn’t need fixing.

Sources: Bloomberg, GamesPress, Gematsu, Kazuhiro Nog/AFP/Getty Images, NVIDIA, PushSquare, Road to VR, Sony Corp, Wall Street Journal.

-Dom

Analysis of Destiny’s Release Timeline, And How Will Rise of Iron Fare?

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Publisher Activision-Blizzard ($ATVI) released its shared-world space shooter Destiny back in September 2014, and the game has been on an interesting timeline ever since.

Developed by Bungie, best known for creating the early games in the Halo series, the genre-bending title started strong out of the gate by racking up around $325 million in sales (sold-through to consumers) in its first week. It overcame a well-documented difficult development cycle and mixed critical reception to become one of the most financially successful launches in the history of gaming.

In the two years since, it has garnered both praise and critique from critics and gamers alike for its mix of online elements, top-rate FPS mechanics and (most recently) cosmetic micro-transations in which players can buy in-game items for real-world dollars. Also, Activision has offered incremental paid expansions in the form of “content drops” by the names of The Dark Below, House of Wolves, The Taken King and finally Rise of Iron which is slated for release tomorrow.

 

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Each of these expansions built on (lots would say improved) the original game as Bungie updated its economy and systems plus offered new missions and raids (multi-person, complex quests with big rewards), but also costs consumers money as gamers were charged an additional fee on top of the base game. Whether you are a fan of this trajectory or not, the game has amassed a huge following with around 30 million registered users who spend an average of 3 hours playing even years later.

To track its progress individually and overall within Activision as a whole, below I’ll offer a handful of indicators. First is an overview of the firm’s stock price since Destiny’s original release two years back. You’ll see its price in September 2014 was $23.73, and it’s now grown to around $44 per share this week. During this time, the publisher’s market value has increased by $10.9 billion.

 

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It’s true that there are a variety of factors that go into a firm’s share price, among them the broader economy, performance of additional products (Activision-Blizzard also publishes popular games such as Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and Overwatch), mergers such as the acquisition of King Digital and general investor sentiment, but Destiny is a key part of the publisher’s portfolio especially when it comes to generating recurring revenue. The content packs I mentioned before create a revenue stream similar to a subscription-based title like WoW, as opposed to say Overwatch where new characters and maps are offered for free and the only additional revenue comes from cosmetic items.

 

Speaking of recurring revenue, Activision as a business unit within the overall company has found a way to generate ongoing sales via its continued updates for Destiny. A snapshot below shows the unit’s revenue numbers alongside each corresponding Destiny release. General theme is that other than the year-end holidays, a Destiny release over the past two years has meant slightly more revenue than “non-Destiny” quarters. Again, caveat is that the publisher produces other games, of course, but it’s interesting to see sales aligned with an estimate time frame of when each expansion came out.

 

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Lastly, I’ve tracked results in the U.S. games market of the title and its expansions according to the NPD Group, a data provider for the games industry. Upon release, it was the #1 selling game in September 2014 followed by #5 in October 2014. During some of its expansions, it reemerged in the Top 10 especially during Destiny: The Taken King, as this was billed as the largest expansion yet and had the most content. Note that this only tracks the U.S. physical games market prior to a couple months back, but it gives a good sense for how games perform at release and with updated content throughout their life cycles. Destiny is one of the few titles in recent memory that has been a Top Ten regular on-and-off since late 2014.

 

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With Destiny: Rise of Iron expansion planned for release tomorrow, how will it fare? Can it again capture lapsed players (including myself) and provide revenue stability? When it comes to Rise of Iron, its content is more aligned more with The Taken King than some of the smaller ones, as it offers multiple missions and the first brand new raid activity in a year. With that comes a higher price tag ($29.99) than the smaller releases of course, but this also provides upside for its sales potential.

 

In the absence of a sequel to Destiny, which isn’t expected until next year, and a release date prior to the big blockbuster releases in the same genre like Battlefield 1, Titanfall 2 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, I think that Rise of Iron will perform about as well as The Taken King, with a Top 5 showing in NPD for September and Top 10 for October, and sales momentum into the 3rd quarter plus holidays that will support Activision’s segment revenue. However, I do not expect Rise of Iron to have the legs of The Taken King, as the aforementioned blockbuster titles will take gamers away and then early 2017 titles such as Horizon: Zero Dawn should overshadow it.

 

Do you think that Destiny: Rise of Iron will sell as well as Destiny: The Taken King or somehow the original game? Are you a lapsed player than plans on jumping back into the game this week? I’m interested to hear! Shoot me a note or comment here.

 

Sources: Activision-Blizzard, Bungie, NASDAQ, NPD Group

 

-Dom