The latest gaming manufacturer to report earnings is Sony Corp, this time sharing fiscal 2021 first quarter results. During which the Japanese company revealed its PlayStation division recorded its highest first quarter sales ever even as PlayStation 5 shipments slightly lag its predecessor. Though sell-through to consumers for this latest generation of hardware is still going at a faster pace, driving gaming segment results for the consumer tech conglomerate.
This is the first full quarter that’s compared against highs set during the height of stay-at-home requirements, so the impact of a global pandemic on gaming and consumer spending is coming into focus. A record Q1 for Sony’s gaming department shows that audience demand is resilient, especially on the console side, even if software spend is descending from a very tall peak.
Suffice to say, PlayStation is making history even considering supply challenges facing the industry alongside easing pandemic restrictions.
Sony’s Gaming & Network Services (G&NS) i.e. PlayStation brand revenue rose just under 2% to a Q1 record of $5.62 billion. Higher than even last year’s impressive result of $5.5 billion, this performance was mainly driven by PlayStation 5 demand and exchange rate changes despite lower 3rd party software and add-on content sub-categories.
Essentially for Sony at this stage three quarters into a new generation of gaming consoles, hardware is selling out though its audience spend on games is slowing.
On the profit side, G&NS segment quarterly operating income dropped 33% to roughly $760 million on higher costs associated with making and marketing a new console cycle. More so, that lower third-party software and add-on spending relative to last year. Still when taking a broader perspective, this is actually fantastic output. It’s the third best operating profit performance in a first quarter in the history of breaking out the gaming segment.
Speaking of PlayStation hardware sales, Sony shared updated shipment figures for both of its latest boxes. PlayStation 5 shipped 2.3 million units in the quarter ending June, bringing lifetime to 10.1 million. This is notable for a couple reasons. First, it’s about 500K lower than PlayStation 4 did in the same quarter during April to June 2014. So its pace of shipment is slowing compared to its predecessor, no doubt impacted by a global chip shortage that’s adversely affecting everything from automobile to graphics processor output.
However, shipments can’t tell the whole story when there’s more information available. Sony Interactive Entertainment said recently PlayStation 5 sell-thru to its audience hit the 10 million milestone as of July 18th. That’s 3 weeks faster than PlayStation 4 took to reach that same amount. Which means the number of PlayStation 5 consoles getting to consumers (or perhaps scalpers, I know) at this stage in the cycle is higher than any other in the brand’s history.
There’s also the underlying profitability dynamics for these PlayStation 5’s moving through to households. According to executives on the earnings call, its standard disc edition is actually now profitable per unit after the tradition of being sold at a loss during initial quarters. I’ll note the version without a disc drive is not yet breaking even.
As expected this late in the PlayStation 4 life cycle, quarterly shipments dipped below the million unit mark for the first time since launch back in November 2013. This brings its lifetime mark to roughly 116.5 million. I expect this slowing to continue, and wouldn’t be surprised if Sony’s reporting tops out around the 120 million mark.
Well then. It’s time to get into the nitty gritty for a bit, then end with forecasts and predictions!
The above gallery above shows relevant slides and a handful of charts I compiled to illustrate where the PlayStation division is starting out this new fiscal year. I know it’s a lot of data. But it’s goods stuff, I swear!
Expanding broadly, Sony overall saw sales rise 15% in Q1 to $20.6 billion. Growth in both Electronics Products & Solutions (EP&S) plus its Music category outpaced all other categories, although gaming is still the main contributor from a dollar (or really yen) standpoint.
Quarterly operating profit for the company topped $2.56 billion, up 26%. Driven by that same EP&S category, dragged down by higher expenses within PlayStation.
I mentioned the record quarterly sales and lowering operating profit for G&NS before, so let’s see how these compare when expanding over time to smooth out the results. This helps put quarterly performance into context.
When looking at trailing 12-month gaming revenue accounting for this latest quarter, it’s again at another record high of $24.35 billion. That trend-line is impressive, no doubt bolstered by people trying to get their hands on the coveted new console. Trailing annual operating profit hit $2.75 billion, with the dip in the latest time period. Still, it’s higher than this same time last year. As the company gets more efficient in making PlayStation 5’s plus sees component costs potentially lower, I expect it to bounce back again.
You’ll also see a chart above drilling into category sales results within gaming. Of course, Hardware is the biggest gainer as it’s more than double the amount last year for obvious reasons. Consistent with earlier comments, both Physical and Digital Software decreased in the double-digits as did Add-On Content. Sony attributed that to 3rd party declines. Network Services is proving resilient, moving up compared to last year. The final category Others encompasses peripherals, PlayStation VR and first-party software on non-PlayStation platforms almost doubled, I imagine boosted by DualSense game pad demand.
On the software and engagement side, Sony shared new figures for game sales, PlayStation Plus subscriptions plus Monthly Active Users (MAUs) in its supplementary filing, the last of which is the estimated number of unique accounts that uses PlayStation Network during June 2021.
Full-game software sales totaled 63.6 million across PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 4 during the quarter, substantially lower than the 91.4 million during Q1 last year. Within this, 10.5 million were first party exclusives, down from 18.7 million.
Thing is, this is more a reversion to the average than a decline. There’s also how last year saw the massive launch of The Last of Us Part II. Executives said every new release during April to June 2021 exceeding internal expectations. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is at 1.1 million units since June 11th. MLB The Show 21 hit market on April 16th and has since sold 2 million units while attracting 4 million players, certainly benefiting from a simultaneous Xbox Game Pass launch. Returnal also released in April, reaching 560K copies in the interim.
There’s also a specific shout out to PC versions of Horizon Zero Dawn and Days Gone as Sony opens up its legacy first-party catalog to a brand new audience.
Paid PlayStation Plus subscriptions reached 46.3 million from an even 45 million last year, while MAUs were down to 104 million from 114 million. This movement shows a bit lower average engagement, though it looks like new console owners are signing up for the PlayStation Plus service that allows online multiplayer and provides access to certain games each month.
The leadership team provided a bit more color on these stats, saying that total gameplay time of PlayStation users declined 32% from the highs of quarantine impact. It’s up 18% compared to the same quarter of 2019 fiscal year, a more normalized period even if well into PlayStation 4’s lifetime.
Now, how does Sony’s $5.62 billion revenue and $760 million operating income quarter compare to recent results from peers in the industry? As I covered in my piece on Microsoft’s latest financial year last week, the Xbox division generated $3.74 billion in sales during the same time frame. And Microsoft unfortunately doesn’t report Xbox’s profit. Hardware was the driver again, though it’s clear that PlayStation is outpacing Xbox in that department early in this generation based on expert unit estimates and these dollar sales.
Separately for the other major Japanese games manufacturer in Nintendo, it reports first quarter results tomorrow. So we’ll have a better picture then. Last year during the height of stay-at-home, Nintendo generated roughly $3.27 billion in sales and $1.3 billion in operating profit, implying a much higher margin with Switch towards the middle of its life span so we’ll see where it lands this year.
Edit on August 5th: Nintendo’s Q1 revenue totaled $2.91 billion while operating income reached nearly $1.1 billion. Consistent with it being the more profitable of the two, at least right now.
Back to Sony and looking ahead, the company provided updated 2021 fiscal year forecasts for its overall and segment operations. Sales guidance remained unchanged for the company overall at $89 billion, though it did boost operating profit by 5% to upwards of $9 billion. Within gaming, it confirmed annual guidance of $26.5 billion in revenue and $3 billion in profit. The former would be a record and the latter I believe the second best in its history, revealing just how bullish the Sony team is on the modern PlayStation brand.
Leadership also reiterated that it still expects to ship 14.8 million PlayStation 5 consoles during the financial year ending March 2022, which would be the same as PlayStation 4. This implies lifetime PlayStation 5 consoles would be 22.6 million after its first six quarters, slightly outpacing the 22.4 million of PlayStation 4.
Broadly speaking on the topic of looking forward, there were slides and additional comments related to general strategy that stood out from management too, consistent with recent trends of company spending and approach.
“PlayStation Studios, which oversees our first-party software production on a global basis, is accelerating investment to strengthen its production capabilities” said the team. They cited the purchase of Housemarque in June then Nixxes in July, two notable acquisitions for the PlayStation portfolio in this quarter alone. This sort of investment activity this year is even more than I anticipated from Sony when I wrote about broader predictions back in January. I expect another announcement in the back half of this fiscal year, this time of Bluepoint Games based in Texas.
Backing this up, executives shared more about future potential. “Going forward, we intend to continue to proactively make strategic investments with the aim of developing new IP, supporting our multi-platform strategy, and strengthening our service offerings including through add-on content.”
What this all means to me is Sony remains supremely confident in the PlayStation business and how the PlayStation 5 will continue as the fastest-selling console in its history. I’m doubling down on my original estimate for this fiscal year of 15 million hardware shipments, which I established in last quarter’s piece.
On the financial side, I believe Sony will match or exceed its guidance. A record year is in sight for gaming revenue. It’s selling as many consoles as its suppliers can make, cost of general marketing will flatten and segments like network services will prop up if software doesn’t keep pace with last year’s explosive growth.
Major questions still swirl around supply of components and the global semiconductor environment, which has limited the number of new consoles these manufacturers can produce. Imagine if that weren’t the case! Record numbers could be even higher. Then, can new hardware sales translate into player engagement remaining near recent highs? There are audience members that either started playing or returned to games sticking around, the pie is growing. It just depends on how much.
If this quarter is any indication, Sony is certainly having its fair share of slices.
Thanks for reading everyone. Check back to my earnings calendar for more dates, and there will be even more coverage here and on social media in the coming days. Be safe!
Note: Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise mentioned. Exchange rate is based on the reported conversion: US $1 to ¥ 109.5.
Sources: Charles Sims (Photo Credit), Insomniac Games (Image Credit), Microsoft Corp, Nintendo Co Ltd, Sony Corp.