I read this interesting piece on Gamasutra today and it motivated me to write about the keynote I gave at the SMU-Guildhall conference on video game law and business earlier this month.
My topic was, broadly, the fallacy in the video game business that content innovation creates enterprise value. By enterprise value, I mean a return on equity for shareholders, usually at some multiple of revenue or earnings. Instead, I argued that while content innovation expands audiences and generates revenues, distribution innovation has historically driven outsized enterprise value creation in the video game business.
Here are my slides -- you can get the idea:
Ok, not that remarkable. I've spoken on this subject twice before -- once to an internal EA audience at their Vancouver online summit a couple of years ago, and I talked at some length on this topic on a panel that Dean Takahashi led at UC Berkeley last year.
But it's amazing how many people didn't get it. One person from a well-known market research firm challenged my thesis, arguing that "shiny disks are still a multi-billion dollar business." Well, so is the grocery business. So is the automobile business. But investors don't ascribe high multiples to those revenues.
Don't believe me? Do the math. THQ is currently trading at a $270MM market cap, despite $1B in trailing twelve month revenues -- .27X. Take Two is at .37X. Even EA is down to 1.22X.
The current valuation multiples in the video game business are predicated on earnings or revenue growth, and that's the context in which content innovation is linked to value creation. Activision gets a bump from Guitar Hero because that franchise supports Wall Street's revenue growth estimates, and because hit titles produce economies of scale that drive better margins and thus earnings growth.
But content innovation rarely produces long-term, defensible competitive advantages in the way that distribution innovation does. When EA created their global direct retail distribution platform in the early 90's -- highly innovative at a time when most of their competitors were still working through aggregators -- they created sales leverage that lasted for a decade, and created a market share and earnings multiple advantage that none of their competitors could match. It wasn't that EA had Madden & FIFA, it was that EA had those titles and could sell them in the four corners of the planet.
Meanwhile, the companies that have recently built innovative digital distribution platforms, often based on virtual goods sales or subscription revenues, are thriving, maintaining buoyant revenue multiples despite the downturn. Shanda, the Chinese MMO company, is trading at a 4X revenue multiple.
Content innovation is sexy. It's spectacular. It's what every editor wants to write about and what every gamer wants to play. But as an investor, you are better served looking for companies that are innovating on distribution.