That’s another year in the books for Microsoft, which reported its 2023 fiscal results earlier this week.
(Something you all knew already, naturally, because you have my earnings calendar bookmarked!)
Within this latest report, its Xbox division faltered in the home stretch to finish a down year, as it missed forecasts and experienced yet another decline in hardware sales during Q4. Still, in a historical sense, it’s maintaining solid footing and hopefully setting up a return to growth.
From April to June 2023, Microsoft’s gaming revenue rose a modest 1% to $3.49 billion. While that means it’s the second best Q4 for games on record behind 2021, it did miss the company’s forecast.
Executives cited weaker output from both first and third party content as main contributors to coming up short. The disastrous start of Bethesda’s Redfall took its toll, where one of the company’s biggest exclusive title launches of the 1st half also happened to be one of its worst from a quality standpoint.
Then, while hardware doesn’t drive the business as much as content does, it’s become the norm lately that console sales are lagging both peers and where they should be at this early point in the generation. The trend held in Q4, as hardware experienced declining revenue for the past three quarters, and during four of the last five. All of them down double-digits.
Microsoft themselves even used its “third place status” on the core console side (behind PlayStation and Nintendo) as support in a battle against the government to justify its pending purchase of Activision Blizzard. In fact, based on what Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Satya Nadella didn’t say on the conference call, the Xbox Series X|S is no longer the fastest selling Xbox to date. It’s trending below 2013’s Xbox One, a capitulation that may signal mismanagement, as I’ll expound later.
For 2023 as a whole, total games revenue trended downward. Annual Xbox sales dipped 5% to $15.47 billion, for familiar reasons like slow first party output and lower hardware contribution. Even as Game Pass, allegedly, continues to grow. By how much? Execs won’t say. What Nadella did claim is that the service set a record for “fourth quarter engagement.” However much that is.
Can you tell I’m souring in tone when writing about Xbox? Check below for a deeper dive into the numbers and details behind a somewhat shaky quarter to find out why.
The above gallery contains slides displaying the aforementioned 1% growth for Xbox during the quarter ending June 2023, to $3.49 billion. Leading into this quarter, management forecasted upward movement in the “mid to high single digits.”
While that’s the first “miss” against estimates that I’ll discuss, this figure is quite good when compared to comparable periods in the past. In fact, Q4 revenue hasn’t been below $3 billion since fiscal 2019, when the Xbox One was long-in-the-tooth.
For the full 12 months, Microsoft’s gaming revenue came in at $15.47 billion, down 5% from a record $16.23 billion. This is actually the first time annual Xbox business sales have declined since the company began breaking them out back in 2017.
Granted, 2022 was an all-time high, so it’s now normalizing from those lofty peaks. There are macro elements, like higher inflation and entertainment alternatives. Still, its competitors are facing those too. There’s plenty of, hm.. “Micro” aspects here specific to Xbox’s contraction. This includes a lackluster portfolio of new exclusive titles, poor performance from the likes of Redfall, stagnating demand for its consoles and a premature push into cloud that isn’t paying off yet.
Speaking of competitors, where does Microsoft’s latest annual results stack up in the broader sense (even if not a perfect comparison since it’s the first to report)? Up first is Sony’s PlayStation with nearly $27 billion, temporarily boosted by the yen’s drastic movement. Tencent is close behind, with upwards of $26 billion across its international and domestic gaming initiatives. This is where Microsoft slots in, with $15.47 billion. If accounting for Activision Blizzard’s latest trailing 12-month sales of $8.7 billion, then backing out a couple billion for overlaps and redundancies, Microsoft could see around $22 billion after close. Then there’s Nintendo at $12 billion, with the important point that it’s leaner and more profitable than its counterparts.
Speaking of profitability, as usual we don’t know much about Xbox’s income profile. Microsoft’s gaming segment resides within the More Personal Computing (MPC) reportable segment, which saw operating profit gain 4% in the fourth quarter to $4.68 billion. This was due to an operating expense decline of 9%, mainly attributed to Devices and Windows. Based on this, and soft top-line movement for Xbox in Q4, my guess is profitability remaining consistent, with some downside potential due to the marketing push start for Starfield and development budgets of 2024 projects.
It’s time to get my hands dirty digging into both sub-segments: Xbox Content & Services and Xbox Hardware. Stick around for some spice when I cover the latter.
Quarterly sales within Xbox Content & Services moved up 5% to $2.9 billion. That’s 83% of the total, compared to 80% last year, mainly because Hardware is even more lackluster. It’s a big miss against guidance, which was “low to mid teens.” Accounting for the full year, Xbox Content & Services revenue dropped 3% to $12.18 billion.
Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Amy Hood attributed the whiff to “weakness in first and third party content performance.” While that’s pretty standard CFO speak, the mention of Xbox Game Studios is notable. Minecraft Legends launched in April to 3 million players, which I’d call respectable. The obvious miss was May’s Redfall. While no one, not even Xbox itself, expected it to be a huge seller, it’s clear management was caught off guard by the dismal vampire open world game both critically and commercially.
Add this misread of a major Bethesda title by the current administration to the growing list of reasons why I’m becoming less confident in them as the quarters roll on.
On that list is a complete lack of Game Pass subscriber numbers, which were absent here yet again despite the consistent claims by management that it’s been growing. That’s a big deal for the final report of a fiscal period. It’s been literal years since any Game Pass figure, which Xbox wants us to believe is still at 25 million. There’s rumblings here and there, it could be upwards of 29 million or more. Who knows.
This is what happens when executives aren’t transparent about the main product that defines Xbox’s entire identity!
What management did share was, I suppose, some statements around player engagement.
“We set new fourth quarter highs for monthly active users, driven by strength off-console, as well as monthly active devices,” Nadella said (notice the “off-console” part!). “And we saw record fourth quarter engagement across Game Pass, with hours played up 22% year-over-year.”
It’s hard to be impressed or excited when we don’t have actual numbers, or anything against which to compare these so-called records.
As for Xbox Hardware, it isn’t just stagnating. It’s regressing. Console sales were 13% lower in Q4, to $595 million. Which, based on my math last quarter, was likely in-line with management’s expectation. This drop brought the full 2023 number down 11% to $3.29 billion. Prior year, it was growing in the double-digits.
In what’s become a worrying trend at this point in the generation, Xbox is seeing consistently declining hardware revenues even as broad supply concerns have dissipated. Looking at units that are mostly estimated, signs point to Xbox Series X|S now lagging Xbox One, which was at 24.7 million at this stage, implying between 24 million and 24.5 million lifetime for this latest family of devices. Xbox Series X|S is still above the Xbox 360, which was at 20.3 million launch-aligned before picking up steam as it matured.
Ironically, a mere day after Xbox’s report, Sony shared a milestone for PlayStation 5: it’s now sold 40 million units thru to consumers. Shoot, it had already passed the 30 million mark back in December, leaving Xbox in its dust long ago.
Considering Microsoft’s general gaming strategy, I’ve been wondering if the ecosystem shift was either too early, or too aggressive, because it’s been costly for goodwill and occasionally for its bottom line. I’d argue Xbox management isn’t doing right by core players, and not just because of the clear business mix shift away from consoles and towards support across devices and platforms. People aren’t spending on Xbox consoles at a time when the install base should be increasing at a healthier rate. Supply is no longer a concern like it was even a year ago. This is a consumer choice to avoid, and go elsewhere. Or access Game Pass via Samsung TV, PCs or whatever gadget supports it without having to spend bucks on an Xbox.
Of course, hardware regression goes alongside spotty software output this generation, because Xbox hasn’t done a great job giving people a reason to own an Xbox. Both Microsoft and Sony had the same release window, time to prepare and challenges faced by the pandemic. Nintendo studios put out chart-toppers and Game of the Year candidates, supporting the Switch over its years. Xbox’s hardware business is contracting, when it should be growing.
There’s certainly an engineering and manufacturing element, whereby hardware is usually not profitable. Yes, hardware is usually a loss leader, sold in the red to attract people to a system then recoup losses by selling a volume of games. I won’t get into the nitty gritty, because I know there’s engineering challenges and I’m no engineer. I’ll just pose a question: If Sony can make each standard PlayStation 5 version profitable less than a year after launch, why can’t Microsoft figure out the same?
If each Xbox isn’t profitable, and an exclusive portfolio isn’t attractive, is a hardware business sustainable? Many might argue this is what Xbox management wanted. Less reliance on consoles! More recurring revenue! Hook people via subscriptions! “When we all play, everyone wins!” While that’s a wonderful sentiment, this is business. If a portion isn’t doing well, and it keeps happening, there’s a question around it being a going concern. In capitalism, a product line can’t be justified if it isn’t growing, and right now, hardware is unfortunately going the wrong direction.
Maybe the best is yet to come for Xbox and it’s ramping up for a strong back half of the cycle when games and consoles will sell harmoniously. That’s part of why Nadella signed off on paying a premium for Activision Blizzard, because Xbox’s current studios aren’t outputting the types of games that sell systems or a brand. Or, perhaps this signals the new normal for gaming at Microsoft: no longer a console, instead a nebulous platform, whose higher-ups somehow aren’t phased by dreary hardware stats because Game Pass is the retention point, rather than Xboxes.
Well, then. Before I go, I want to talk Microsoft overall and some predictions.
During the quarter ending June, the company’s total revenue rose 8% to $56.2 billion. Operating profit jumped 18% to $24.3 billion. That means the annual revenue figure is a staggering $212 billion, up 7%, with 6% higher operating profit of $88.5 billion.
That’s right, Microsoft had a record year. It made almost $89 billion in profit. The same year in which it laid off 10,000 people, or almost 5% of its workforce at the time, put various pay freezes in place and reduced bonuses, as some employees pointed out during Nadella’s year-end update.
Within Xbox, the last quarter of fiscal 2023 was highlighted by missed sales estimates and a concerning hardware result, even if the business remains in a good position compared to earlier years. The problem is Xbox is missing out on upside, and fumbling opportunities to capture more buyers with a subpar portfolio almost three years into the current cycle.
The good news is that the future is looking up, both immediately and in the coming years, at least for software and content partnerships. I’ve been cautious on Xbox, and I’m remaining so. Even with Starfield on the immediate horizon, and other projects incoming into the back half of the new fiscal year.
In terms of financial forecasting, Hood said the company anticipates Xbox revenue to grow in the “mid single digits” during Q1 of fiscal 2024. Assuming that’s exactly 5%, quarterly sales would be $3.79 billion, or an all-time high for a July to September period.
Executives think Xbox Content & Services will grow in the “mid to high single digit” range, driven by 1st party content, 3rd party content and Game Pass (I mean, what else is there?). If that’s at 7%, this sub-segment would contribute right at $3 billion, yet another Q1 record.
Thing is, based on both of these assumptions, I’m looking at another down quarter for Xbox Hardware, although not in the double-digits. The numbers point to a modest 2% dip, putting it at $784 million-ish.
None of this accounts for Activision Blizzard, as Microsoft’s executives have noted since the deal was announced because that’s a standard disclosure. Still, this is the first time since that first announcement back in early 2022 where the deal might actually close in the respective quarter. The companies extended the deal finalization date to October 18th. Personally, I now anticipate a September closure.
As for a prediction, I’d still be protecting against the downside even with Starfield looming. I expect the targets to be met, although the upside isn’t as prominent as if Bethesda’s RPG was solely a full-priced offering and outright system seller like say its PlayStation counterpart Marvel’s Spider-Man 2.
That about does it for my coverage of Microsoft’s most recent financial announcement. Spicier than usual, right? Hope it was to your liking. Thanks for reading, and be safe all!
Note: Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise noted.
Sources: Bethesda, Company Investor Relations Websites, Getty (Image Credit), Sony Interactive Entertainment.