That would of course be Sony, which posted its annual results for fiscal 2021 on Tuesday.
During these 12 months ending March 2022, the Japanese consumer tech company saw positive momentum in both its overall business and PlayStation segment. Sales and operating profit for the firm in general each saw double-digit gains since last year.
Even amidst challenges on the hardware side, momentum hasn’t slowed much since a record holiday quarter for PlayStation. While growth rates hovered in the low single-digits, Sony’s Game & Network Services (G&NS) just achieved its second best trailing annual revenue and operating profit. This is especially impressive given the major demand spike last year during more restrictive quarantines in various markets.
Hardware is the headliner for Sony’s gaming business now that the current console generation has entered its second year. After shipping the expected 2 million PlayStation 5 consoles during the quarter of January to March, fiscal year shipments totaled 11.5 million. This was in-line with Sony’s guidance, which I’ll note was reduced from nearly 15 million just last quarter.
It follows that PlayStation 5 is now upwards of 19.3 million lifetime. It’s still not easy to find one and Sony’s suppliers are limited by part availability, which means it’s lagging its predecessor more than ever. At this point, PlayStation 4 had shipped over 3 million more units. It seems that more than its counterparts in the space, Sony is having a tougher time securing inputs.
Which is why I was a bit surprised by its forecast looking ahead to the next fiscal year ending March 2023. Sony’s management has set quite an ambitious goal of moving 18 million PlayStation 5’s over that time. It would be an increase of 6.5 million, and bring lifetime units to 37.3 million. Personally, I’m not nearly as optimistic.
Elsewhere in the report, Sony reported slight contractions in a couple engagement statistics. Both PlayStation Plus memberships and Monthly Active Users (MAU) declined since March 2021, signifying it’s lost players since the pandemic peaks. However on the financial side, Sony overall and PlayStation saw sales and profit increases which means those people sticking in the PlayStation ecosystem are spending money.
One area where PlayStation excels is first-party software. Its teams are responsible for some of the most critically-successful titles in the industry, thus enticing buyers to pay that premium price tag. So it makes sense executives call out plans to invest more in its game development resources and strategy of placing titles on other platforms, namely PC.
“Going forward, we aim to grow the game business by strengthening our first party software and deploying that software on multiple platforms,” said Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Hiroki Totoki during its earnings call. “
Buckle up, let’s see what’s driving Sony’s recent growth.
The gallery above contains various slides and charts based on Sony’s FY 2021 results.
For the company in total, fourth quarter revenue rose 2% to over $20 billion. That led full year sales growth of 10% to above $88 billion. In terms of operating profit, this was $2.33 billion or almost three times as much as the prior year. That substantial quarterly momentum was behind the annual profit jump of 26% to upwards of $10.71 billion.
G&NS is still the leading business by both sales and income when looking at segment reporting. Pictures and Electronics Products & Solutions (EP&S) grew the most, while Financial Services proved to be the only major business line to decline during this time.
Focusing on the PlayStation business alone, January to March sales increased a modest 1% to $5.9 billion. Operating profit nearly doubled to $777 million. Over the latest 12 months, gaming generated $24.4 billion in revenue which was 3% higher than prior year. Annual operating profit was effectively flat around $3 billion.
The top-line growth was attributed to an increase in hardware sales plus the impact from foreign exchange rate, outpacing a decline in mainly third party software. Sony stated it’s seeing better margins for hardware, contributing to that more consistent profitability. Which is good news in this environment of rising costs. It means when hardware is selling, on average its price point makes up for manufacturing expenses. This is consistent with Sony’s comments in the past that the standard PlayStation 5 edition became profitable after only a handful of quarters on market.
This dynamic is reflected in the product category chart, where annual sales from Hardware & Others grew 10% to $7.5 billion. Network Services boosted 7% to $3.6 billion. Digital Software & Add-On Content was the only sub-grouping to decline, though it wasn’t by much. It saw a 2% dip to $12.7 billion, and still comprises more than half of the PlayStation business. Underlying this was mainly a reduction in add-on content, implying a bit less spending on that type of downloadable content.
Per usual, I’ll run a quick comparison to major players in the games industry. Here’s what I wrote in my article on Nintendo, because it’s relevant here:
Tencent reports later this month, though most recently had an industry best $27 billion from gaming. Microsoft’s Xbox division posted $16.5 billion. Factoring the pending Activision Blizzard deal, it could be upwards of $23 billion to $24 billion depending on cost savings, etc. Unfortunately, both of these companies don’t break out profit from games. On the other hand, Sony also reported results today featuring $24.4 billion in revenue then $3 billion in operating profit. Thus, while Nintendo’s overall sales aren’t as much as these others, it’s currently more profitable than the PlayStation brand.
Moving onto a round-up of various supplemental updates from Sony’s materials, I’ll now talk software performance, player engagement, subscription movement and services output.
First up is software sales, as measured by copies sold. For the year, Sony reported declines in both total and first party games. On the whole, 303 million units sold across PlayStation platforms. Out of that, almost 44 million were first party games. Compare that to 339 million and 58.4 million respectively during last year. And it wasn’t really a lack of output. On the console exclusive side, titles like Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection, Horizon Forbidden West, Gran Turismo 7, Ghostwire Tokyo and Returnal hit this year. While lower year-on-year, first party software wasn’t as much to blame here.
It’s more releases from external publishers that are causing declines, and I wager softer performance of Call of Duty: Vanguard is the most significant contributor. While it’s still massive, the title is under-performing in the context of premium Call of Duty offerings. Perhaps the suite of sports titles that usually hit in the Fall, as well. And this latest quarter saw Elden Ring, which seems to be more successful on PC, plus Dying Light 2: Stay Human.
Now, it’s also a natural normalization of spending from pandemic highs. People are seeing higher prices elsewhere, thus limiting more discretionary spending. It’s not necessarily a doomsday scenario.
Digital split ended up being pretty consistent in the realm of software sales. Downloads made up 66% of all game sales during fiscal 2021, which is effectively the same as last year’s 65% figure. Lately then, this means 2 out of every 3 games sold on a PlayStation platform is downloaded as opposed to purchased via traditional retail.
Looking at Sony’s current main subscription of PlayStation Plus, memberships declined ever-so-slightly to 47.4 million. It was at 47.6 million in March 2021. The company recently outlined its rebranding plan, which will combine this service with PlayStation Now streaming capabilities into a set of PlayStation Plus pricing tiers. I think it’s overly complicated to have three tiers, and it’s not a true competitor to Xbox Game Pass in its form starting this June. Though I believe it can attract more subscriptions, so the end result should be a net positive. Even if I don’t think Sony is going far enough with what it’s offering.
Similarly on the engagement side, Monthly Active Users (MAUs) dipped in fiscal 2021. It started the year at 109 million, then ended up at 106 million. Management didn’t share much more in the way of engagement or play hours, so I have to infer that they were lower than a year ago. Which makes sense as I’ve talked about mean reversion and spending normalization.
Not to be forgotten just yet, PlayStation 4 made an appearance in the supplementary report with 100K units shipped during the fourth fiscal quarter. That brought its annual total to exactly 1 million consoles shipped, and pushed its lifetime figure to around 117 million. Based on Sony’s optimism around PlayStation 5 shipments increasing, this could very well be the last hurrah for its predecessor.
Considering the current consumer technology environment and where purchasing habits were at this time last year, Sony’s fiscal 2021 report is a triumphant one. Gains in both revenue and profit while battling headwinds from component shortages and rising inflation are worth celebrating. For PlayStation, hardware may be lagging historically and software sales are trending down, yet these are temporary situations. Financially this business is stable as ever, supplementing its traditional console sales with digital, service and add-on spending which will only increase as PlayStation Plus rebranding and partnerships with external publishers continue.
Before closing out, I’ll take a look ahead leveraging Sony’s own forecasts. It’s also time to throw in some predictions of my own!
Starting with that PlayStation 5 guidance of 18 million console shipments expected in the coming year. Management suggests the company will be able to secure enough parts, and at reasonable prices, to reach this elevated goal compared to the 11.5 million over the last 12 months. I believe they *think* they can, yet what will happen in reality is anyone’s guess. Even the smartest leaders can’t accurately predict the future when there’s this much uncertainty.
Personally, I don’t see what executives do. Reading the room using comments from chipmaker CEOs and industry experts, plus considering lock-downs in China, I’m much closer to 15 million or 16 million. More than most, I’m preparing for the semiconductor shortage to last into next year or more. The longer it goes, and if inflation continues with it, I predict Sony will reduce that forecast something like six months from now.
Flipping to financial forecasts, Sony is anticipating some robust top-line growth though guarding against pressures on the profitability side. The firm expects revenue to pass $101 billion in the year ending March 2023, which would be an increase of 15%. Even with that double-digit sales growth, it’s guiding towards 4% lower operating income of around $10.3 billion.
Sony is expecting a similar trend within G&NS where revenue will be higher yet operating profit should decline. In fact, revenue guidance is showing a substantial 34% jump to $32.6 billion which would be a record year for PlayStation. That reflects positive impact from hardware, peripherals, software and exchange rate impact. Still, much higher costs for game development and expenses related to acquisitions will drag down operating income by 12% to $2.7 billion.
“We plan to increase software development expenses aimed at strengthening first party software at our existing studios by approximately 40 billion yen ($300 million) year-on-year,” Totoki said. “And we have incorporated that impact into this forecast.”
Executives expect the $3.6 billion Bungie deal in particular to close before December 31st. If the G&NS segment excluded this acquisition, Sony claims operating profit would be virtually flat.
Taking a look at pending flagship software releases on the console exclusive side, the schedule is actually somewhat light for the next 12 months. Square Enix’s Forspoken was pushed from May to its current window of October. God of War Ragnarok is the big one of course, currently with a nebulous “2022” timing. I may be in the minority, I just don’t buy that the sequel to 2018’s masterpiece God of War will be out this year. However, I do see a launch between January and March 2023, in which case it will help boost sales this fiscal year. Then there’s titles like Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 and Marvel’s Wolverine from Insomniac that are still a ways out.
Then there’s the potential for PlayStation VR 2 during the coming 12 months. Sony’s been drip-feeding information on its next generation virtual reality headset in recent months, showing off its form factor, brand new controllers, advanced technologies and Guerilla Games’ Horizon Call of the Mountain project. Many industry followers think it will launch this year. I’m skeptical given it has to exist in the same supply conditions as the PlayStation 5 right now, though it wouldn’t shock me to see it out this holiday season.
Tangential to gaming is Sony’s transmedia push, seeing as the Uncharted movie has made nearly $400 million dollars since dropping in February. The company clearly has strength in IP ownership, and plans to leverage that in places other than just gaming.
“Following the success of the first movie adaptation of the popular PlayStation game title Uncharted in Motion Pictures, we are leveraging our game IP by proceeding with the adaptation of Ghost of
Tsushima and The Last of Us into video content,” Totoki said.
Then there’s the constant swirl of rumors around potential acquisitions. Sony of course shouted out the Bungie and Haven Studios purchases. Could there be more in the near future? I’ve heard the rumblings about Square Enix after it sold various assets to Embracer Group. I’m thinking it remains independent and continues to partner closer with Sony. Which leaves other third parties still available. If I had to guess, I’d say another development studio or two will be next. And no, not FromSoftware!
Sony’s plans are ambitious and it expects to see substantial revenue growth in the coming year, even if high costs put pressure on its profitability. I believe top-line growth for gaming in particular will be limited if it misses the PlayStation 5 hardware guidance, so I’m more bearish than Sony’s leadership. It all depends where component cost and availability trend, and my estimates prepare for the worst.
Have any questions on today’s Sony recap? What are your reactions to the news and numbers? Do you think PlayStation VR 2 and God of War Ragnarok will be out this fiscal year? Am I crazy to think it won’t hit the 18 million PlayStation 5 target? Yell at me here or on social media, as always.
Oh. And always check my latest earnings calendar for more on gaming, media and tech company results. Have a great rest of the week and season, be well everyone!
Note: Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise mentioned. Exchange rate is based on reported conversion: US $1 to ¥112.3.
Sources: Company Investor Relations Sites, KnowTechie (Image Credit), PlayStation Blog.