It’s already my third major recap of this latest earnings season! Time flies when we’re having fun. And earnings season is the most fun.
Now it’s Sony’s turn. The Japanese consumer tech maker reported fiscal 2023 third quarter results recently and PlayStation set yet another revenue record.
Of course, that’s not the whole story. It’s time to go beyond the “all-time high” headlines to talk about why it’s a really intriguing report and time for Sony’s gaming division, including how profitability is taking a hit even as sales soar, its supplemental material shared some updated stats and executives have again adjusted future expectations.
It’s true Sony’s Gaming & Network Services (G&NS) recorded a best-ever quarterly revenue in the period ending December 2023. Around $10 billion! As it has done a lot recently, driven not just by organic growth due to add-on content and digital downloads, but also continued impact of a weakening yen that works in favor of companies that mainly operate globally.
On the flip side, quarterly operating profit moved down over 25% during the holiday period and is trending towards the worst annual profit of the PlayStation 5 era. There’s both macro and micro reasons for this, including interest rates and high costs alongside weaker internal output and worse hardware losses.
During October to December, Sony shipped 8.7 million PlayStation 5 consoles. While that’s the best single quarter for the console, well above last holiday’s 7.1 million, it’s a million fewer than PlayStation 4 did at the same time and missed estimates enough for them to substantially reduce annual guidance. It’s hard to believe PlayStation 5 is entering the middle phase of its life cycle now trailing its predecessor by a wider margin than even last quarter.
The major story on the software side continues to be Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, which swung above 10 million units sold-through to buyers this month after reaching the 5 million milestone back in October. It carried first-party, and also helped drive Monthly Active Users (MAUs) growth even as PlayStation Plus memberships fell.
These led to management again revising its forecast, this time downward for both revenue and hardware. They even provided a look ahead to next fiscal year, clearly signalling PlayStation 5 annual sales are peaking and will shrink in the back half of its life. As far as games and its tent-pole studios, there are no plans for “major franchise” first-party launches until at least April 2025.
Addressing concerns of profit margins during the company’s conference call, Sony’s President Hiroki Totoki cited at least two reasons: difficulty in cutting prices for hardware and needing to create better opportunities for first-party software on more platforms, including PC.
“How can we, given the situation, put our product lines together to make it affordable, without relying on steep discounts, to reasonably sell them to continue our commercial journey on a sustainable basis?” Totoki said. “I personally think that’s important, and there is an opportunity in that.”
Now into the full rundown of numbers and my current predictions. Buckle up!
Sony’s total revenue moved up 22% in the quarter, to a record amount of $26.19 billion. Operating profit reached $3.24 billion, up 10% and the second highest in its history. Growth here came mainly from Entertainment, Technology & Services (ET&S), Financial Services and G&NS.
Zooming into the gaming division, sales rose 16% to a record $10.1 billion driven by third-party software, downloadable content and exchange rate movement. To illustrate the last point, the impact from yen fluctuation alone was $531 million. This implies “true” dollar sales growth around 10%.
Operating income declined 26% to $602 million because of worsening hardware losses and lower internally-published game sales. Across this most recent three-month period, the PlayStation business represented nearly 40% of Sony’s sales yet under 20% of its profit.
Most product categories within G&NS saw higher quarterly sales, including Hardware up 8% to $3.3 billion or 33% of the total. Add-On Content rose 33% to $2.44 billion, accounting for a 24% slice. Digital Software jumped up 16% to almost $2 billion, at 20% of the total. Physical Software and Other Software both declined, 7% and 30% respectively.
Expanding to the latest annualized numbers gives us a broader sense of where the business is at right now. For revenue, it’s the best it’s ever been at $29.65 billion. Compare that to last year’s $22.62 billion. On the other hand, PlayStation currently has the lowest trailing 12-month profit since Fiscal 2017. It’s at $1.56 billion, compared to well over $2 billion a year back. The size of this deterioration is truly evident when you view the the second chart in the above gallery.
Seeing as the “Big Three” have now all reported this season, it’s a good time to revisit our industry comparison. Using annual numbers, Sony’s massive $29.65 billion is tops across all players, above even Tencent’s $26 billion with the caveat that the Chinese internet conglomerate doesn’t report until next month. Microsoft’s $18.13 billion now includes Activision Blizzard, and Nintendo currently stacks up to roughly $13 billion.
Again I’ll mention that while Sony’s sales are soaring, PlayStation is not nearly as profitable as the likes of Nintendo which has more than twice as much operating profit (over $4 billion) on less than half the sales. And it’s not like this is a recent phenomenon. Even during Switch’s fourth fiscal year, a similar time period, Nintendo’s margins were better.
Want more stats? Well, either way, you’ll get them.
Taking the latest PlayStation 5 hardware shipments into account, its lifetime figure is now at 54.8 million. As you’ll see in the above launch-aligned chart, its predecessor was at 57.3 million at this time in the cycle. Not only that, the gap between the two is widening at the exact time when PlayStation 5 is hitting a plateau.
As for comparisons outside of Sony, the PlayStation 5 is steadily approaching the 58 million lifetime sales territory of Microsoft’s Xbox One and will likely surpass it by this fiscal year’s end in March. Next up will be Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) at almost 62 million, still a fair ways off.
Out of those 54.8 million shipped to market, Sony announced back in December that PlayStation 5 reached 50 million sold-through to consumers.
Unit sales for PlayStation software moved up slightly from 86.5 million this time last year to 89.7 million, an increase of 4%. The skew was much more towards those published externally, given that only 16.2 million or 18% were first-party games this time versus 24%, at 20.8 million, during last year’s fiscal Q3.
Most of first-party’s movement was due to Insomniac’s Marvel’s Spider-Man series, which has now surpassed a healthy 50 million units sold-through in aggregate, inclusive of sales from PC since the first entry back in 2018.
Engagement across PlayStation Network hit an impressive 123 million MAUs in the quarter ending December, an all-time high up from last year’s 112 million. The influx of active users, driven not just by Sony’s titles but also external free-to-play offerings like Fortnite, led to 13% more hours played across the ecosystem.
While the company hasn’t shared PlayStation Plus membership figures since the end of last fiscal year, management’s prepared remarks did point out that subscriptions declined since last year though service revenue did increase.
“Regarding network services, despite the impact of a slight year-on-year decrease in the number of PlayStation Plus subscribers, revenue increased 11% year-on-year,” the remarks said. “Mainly due to the impacts of a further shift to premium services and price revisions.”
Essentially, dollar sales from PlayStation Plus are going up for now because of users going to the premium tiers and the price increases the company has instituted. From my perspective, I would add that’s not necessarily sustainable and I see this as more of a temporary dynamic. It’s known that gaming subscription services are stagnating, and this is one such example.
Another area lacking in the report was any shipment figures for Sony’s latest product launch in PlayStation Portal, which hit market during November 2023. Anecdotally, it seems like supply was highly controlled. While we don’t know specifics, we can infer from category results. The segment called Others, which covers peripherals and PlayStation VR2, jumped up 60% to $698 million in Q3. While still a small slice at 7% of sales, that’s a sizeable bump I’d wager was caused directly by Portal.
When taking the full Q3 report into consideration, it shows PlayStation’s position as one of strength on the sales side, partially due to the yen, and an ongoing struggle for profit growth amidst ballooning development and hardware costs. Yes, there’s general inflation and interest rate impact. It’s also the case that rapid-paced triple-A game development and maintaining hardware pricing as a console ages is not sustainable.
The good news is that software demand and player engagement look healthy. It’s just harder to translate these things into higher margins, especially since attracting players to something like PlayStation Plus requires spending money on partnerships or launching first-party games simultaneously into the service, which Sony is not currently doing. At least management is expanding to platforms beyond console, thus spreading risk and boosting audience reach.
Before closing the books on another quarter, I’ll now looking ahead to the finale of Sony’s fiscal year ending March 2024 and beyond.
In a classic flip flop, after revising annual PlayStation revenue guidance up by 5% last quarter, it now backed that off and reduced it by that same amount. This still translates to an increase of 14% up to $29 billion, which would certainly be a record high and lead the industry. I believe this will happen.
Even with the double-digit decline for operating profit this quarter, management reiterated the annual profit guidance of $1.89 billion or up 7%. In order to get there, management said they are reviewing measures to improve profit. One of those could very well be more layoffs. This time, I’m skeptical and I don’t think it’s going to meet this target.
The holiday period was going to be a huge indicator all along for PlayStation 5 unit figures. Now that it missed, management revised annual guidance down from what I called an unrealistic goal of 25 million to now 21 million. This would still be a million above the PlayStation 4’s best year, and I don’t buy it. It’s at 16.4 million so far, leaving 4.6 million to ship between January and March to get there.
Back when Sony was signalling higher, my forecast was also higher. Now I’m at 19.5 million to 20 million, tops, if it can even replicate its predecessor’s success. the only way to get there is if Sony announces aggressive discounting as soon as possible, which again puts a strain on margins.
Finally, executives acknowledged that this will likely be the best year of PlayStation 5 sales, and it’s all downhill from here!
I know what you’re saying: What? Already?! Well, PlayStation 4 peaked in its fourth fiscal year, and PlayStation 5 will be entering its fifth financial year starting this April.
Software is where uncertainty continues, notably for internal studios. There’s no doubt Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 accomplished an incredible feat. That’s the outlier. Plus, the likes of Marvel’s Wolverine, a Ghost of Tsushima sequel and anything from Naughty Dog are at least a year away, if not multiple years.
While The Last of Us Part II Remastered launched on PC and Helldivers 2 is off to a fantastic start, partly because of Steam, Sony didn’t capitalize on the Palworld craze and has a sparse console calendar incoming. I do expect a live service title or two by March 2025, like Concord and Fairgame$, alongside select PC launches to hold software sales over until seeing heavy hitters again.
Development and marketing are as expensive as ever, and projects require increasingly longer timelines to complete. A steady cadence of blockbuster releases is tough if near impossible. That’s a huge part of why we see the current dynamics underlying Sony’s gaming business, and the team will have to navigate these treacherous waters.
As always, I very much appreciate you stopping by for my ongoing earnings coverage. Check in on social media for more and visit soon for future articles. Be well!
Note: Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise noted. Exchange rate is based on reported average conversion: US $1 to ¥143.1
Sources: Company Investor Relations Websites, Sony Interactive Entertainment.