Now that I’ve posted my last earnings calendar of 2023, it’s time to look at some actual results!
First up for the big three of the games industry was Microsoft, which posted its first quarter of fiscal 2024 numbers last night.
During this time frame, the Xbox business unit had a record first quarter sales performance. Quarterly revenue on gaming moved up nearly double-digits, generating almost $4 billion.
The clear driver was Starfield in September, a launch which fit the general theme of the Washington-based company’s strategy. Bethesda Game Studios’ space RPG pulled in Game Pass subscribers more than console buyers, a clear signal that this generation is unlike any other for the platform holder.
That’s because, while content and software sales moved up for Xbox, hardware spend actually declined in this same quarter of the year’s flagship game hit market. Starfield and all first-party titles for Xbox land on its subscription service day one, plus the publisher has been offering early access to its biggest titles. For a small fee, of course.
This translated to a boost in hours played and dollars spent by gamers during July to September period, even if they weren’t as interested in scooping up Xboxes.
“In our consumer business, PC market unit volumes are returning to pre-pandemic levels. Advertising spend landed roughly in line with our expectations,” said Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Amy Hood. “And in Gaming, strong engagement helped by the Starfield launch benefited Xbox Content and Services.”
The other headline news recently for Microsoft was the closure of its $69 billion deal for Activision Blizzard, as of mid-October. This subsidiary is now included in financial forecasts and will account for the bulk of the combined entity’s gaming growth during the upcoming holiday quarter.
Scroll down for a close examination of Xbox’s all-time Q1, industry peer comparisons, a discussion on Activision Blizzard’s impact plus a suite of predictions from both management and yours truly.
Based on the above slides and its filings, Microsoft reported gaming revenue of $3.92 billion in the latest quarter. That’s an all-time Q1 best, 9% above the former record holder last year of $3.61 billion.
This growth came in slight above the company’s estimate of “low to mid single digits,” attributed to out-performance of first party and a higher contribution from Game Pass revenue. This indicates that, at least on the content sales side, Starfield had a better debut than management thought it would and brought in more interest than projected.
Moving to the chart in the gallery above, despite this record quarter, Xbox’s $15.78 billion in trailing 12-month revenue is currently 3% below where it was at the beginning of fiscal 2023.
This modest downward trajectory for the annualized figure is certainly temporary, as you can see in the final column there which incorporates the second quarter estimate due to an Activision Blizzard boost, which I’ll cover in a later section.
Now that we know Xbox’s present annual revenue figure of $15.78 billion, we can map where it stacks up across big players in the industry. Sony’s in the lead with the PlayStation figure being over $27.8 billion, amplified by a currency impact and maximum console availability. Tencent accumulated $25 billion over its latest year, while Nintendo generated $13.46 billion.
Here’s where I remind everyone, especially the fanboys, of certain caveats on these comparisons. First, it’s early in the season and there will be updates throughout the coming weeks. Then, the yen has bumped up sales especially for Sony which is also much less profitable then at least Nintendo (Microsoft and Tencent do not report profit numbers for gaming). Plus, Activision Blizzard will augment Microsoft to at least $18 billion and more in the future, so everything is relative.
As I alluded, sales only tell part of the story. While we don’t know how much Xbox made when backing out expenses, we can infer some things from its broader category and the margin mix. Gaming is a part of Microsoft’s More Personal Computing (MPC) segment, which saw Q1 operating profit go up a whopping 23% to $5.17 billion. While expenses declined 1%, the firm cited how this was more driven by a better margin in Devices that was offset by “investments in Gaming” probably related to Starfield’s marketing push. Still, since it didn’t sell as many consoles, which are typically lower margin than software, I’d wager Xbox’s profit only reduced marginally.
I’ll now shift towards digging into results for the two major product categories: Xbox Content & Services and Xbox Hardware.
Essentially, the former had a great quarter while the latter was lackluster.
Xbox Content & Services spending moved up a healthy 13%, amassing $3.18 billion over the three months ending September. By my math, that’s the highest single first quarter for this segment in history. It comprised 81% of Microsoft’s total gaming revenue in Q1, versus 78% this time last year.
It also follows that, over the last year, Content & Services hit $12.55 billion, which is the second highest total ever behind only fiscal 2022 Q3 at $12.7 billion.
More than ever, the fact that content was over 80% of gaming sales when a traditional “system-seller” type game hit market signals the ever-growing movement away from console sales and towards ecosystem. Management wants people to subscribe to their service, to generate ongoing revenue, to bolster that bottom line, rather than one-time purchases of low margin hardware.
And that’s exactly what’s happening more and more this generation as the mix remains towards software and subscriptions.
When talking about the gaming division on the earnings call, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Satya Nadella shared that Starfield has now attracted over 11 million players to date, up from 10 million as of September 20th.
Showing a more multi-platform skew, management mentioned that almost half of the hours spent on the title have been on PC. Plus, they said it led to a single day record for new Game Pass subscriber sign-ups on its launch date. Unfortunately, they didn’t give any specific figures behind this particular claim, or what the prior best day ever might have been.
I’ll now sound like a broken record, and not the good kind, when I write that yet again management did not share updated Game Pass subscriber numbers. Which is increasingly odd, notably during a monumental quarter with Starfield supposedly boosting the service. Microsoft would have us believe it’s still at 25 million. I’d imagine we might finally hear more after Activision Blizzard titles are integrated and it hits another big milestone because of that.
Flipping in the other direction in Q1 was Xbox Hardware, which saw 7% lower sales than 12 months back. That’s 5% worse than expected, based on backing into management’s prior guidance.
This happened right after a Q4 where it declined 13%, showing that not only were console sales down even leading into the year’s biggest exclusive software launch, they were even worse than Microsoft expected.
Combining the last four quarters, Xbox Hardware currently accounts for $3.23 billion. That’s down 15% year-on-year from the high of $3.8 billion earlier in this Xbox Series X|S generation.
Which, I believe, won’t necessarily phase management. Because console sales are on the back-burner more than they have ever been in the 20-year plus history of the brand.
This time period encapsulates, even amplifies, Microsoft’s strategy. It doesn’t have system-sellers anymore; it has Game Pass sellers. It doesn’t rely on console sales any more; it relies on subscription offerings and catalog consistency. Whether or not this will be sustainable over a longer timeline is the million, scratch that, billion dollar question.
Without unit shipments being reported publicly, all we have are estimates that really end up being closer to guesses. Last quarter, I had Xbox Series X|S at between 24 million and 24.5 million lifetime, thus below Xbox One’s 24.7 million at that same stage. Xbox Series X|S was still above the Xbox 360, which was at 20.3 million launch-adjusted.
What about now and the comparison to prior generations and peers? My best guesstimate puts Xbox Series X|S lifetime at 25.5 million or so. Almost definitely no higher than the 26 million that many estimate Xbox One had by fiscal 2017 Q1. As for current generation comps, Sony’s PlayStation 5 is at nearly 42 million, likely approaching at least 45 million by the time it reports next week.
Competitors are consistently outpacing Xbox in key regions, even during the debut month of Starfield. Circana’s September report on U.S. sales had it in second place behind PlayStation 5, which was also last month’s best-selling console across Europe according to a Games Industry Biz article.
Echoing the success of gaming, Microsoft overall amassed $56.5 billion in revenue in Q1, ending 13% higher than the year prior. Operating profit jumped a whopping 25%, to nearly $27 billion.
Similarly, Microsoft Cloud sales bumped up 24% to $31.8 billion. Nadella and Hood both cited Artificial Intelligence (AI) businesses along with its enterprise operating system and productivity offerings as providing substantial upside.
The Xbox unit just had an all-time July to September period, as predicted in earlier articles, due to the highest profile software it has all year alongside the attraction of a subscription service that offers a lower-priced entry to play that. Plus, an experience like Starfield brings in more PC players than usual because of its modding potential and that Bethesda longevity.
Looking ahead, this is the first official forecast we’ve had from Microsoft on the impact from Activision Blizzard. The firm’s historical comparisons and financial forecasting are both going to be skewed due to the inclusion of this new subsidiary for the foreseeable future.
Its immediate effect will be massive. Across Q2, which is also the holiday quarter ending December, gaming sales are expected to see a growth percentage increases in the “mid to high 40s” i.e. around 45% to 49%.
Out of that, executives said the net impact from Activision Blizzard’s inclusion was 35 points, or 35%. Thus, organic growth for Xbox in Q2 would be around 10% to 14%.
What would that look like in dollar terms? Nearly $7 billion in revenue for the quarter ending December, with Activision Blizzard contributing nearly all of the growth. That’s over a billion and a half better than Xbox’s best quarter of all time, and it means 12-month sales would breach the $18 billion mark.
The company said Xbox Content and Services would grow in the “mid to high 50’s” or almost 60% growth. This would equate to another record of $5.3 billion in quarterly content sales alone.
50 points, or 50%, of that will be from the acquisition. Notably, there’s November’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, knock-on from Diablo IV and legacy titles entering Game Pass. Something like Forza Motorsport will bolster organic growth, as will major third party launches like sports titles from Electronic Arts and Ubisoft’s busy late calendar slate of Assassins Creed Mirage, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora and The Crew Motorfest.
While Microsoft doesn’t provide official guidance on Xbox Hardware, it’s easy to back into it, and I arguer it leads to an even bigger story. Management is signalling growth for console sales well into the double-digits, upwards of 22%, to $1.7 billion. That would be the best growth rate in two years, and it’s the aspect of this forecast where I’m the most skeptical.
Now that I’ve covered the financial results, what caused them and where Microsoft is going into this quarter and beyond, that wraps up my first big rundown of the season. Thanks everyone for reading, and hopefully I’ll see you back very soon for more articles and analysis. Stay safe, all.
Note: Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise noted.
Sources: Bethesda, Circana, Company Investor Relations Websites, Games Industry.Biz.