Monday, January 11, 2010

EA's Miss

After the bell today, EA announced a massive miss for their fiscal year, reducing revenue and earnings per share expectations. CFO Eric Brown also said in a conference call that they expect the packaged goods business to be flat to down for Fiscal 2011.
For anyone paying attention to the larger trends in the video game market, this could hardly have come as a surprise. A few days ago, Gamestop, a key packaged goods distributor for EA, announced a similar miss. While Activision was setting sales records with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, EA had no major hits -- although, in fairness the COD:MW2 revenue was probably just filling in a sinkhole at Activision created by a music game business that has fallen off a cliff. EA is in the wrong business, with the wrong cost structure and the wrong team, but somehow they seem to think that it is going to be a smooth, two-year transition from packaged goods to digital. Think again.
John Riccitiello, the EA CEO, took over the reins of the company almost exactly 3 years ago. I was a senior executive at EA just prior to JR's return, and had a number of conversations with then-CEO Larry Probst about strategy at that time. As those who follow my blog know, I believed that the video game business had experienced a sea-change beginning in 2004, one that required immediate and decisive action.
My argument to Probst in February of 2007 was to reduce expenses immediately by a minimum of $200MM annually by reducing headcount and cutting back on ridiculous expenditures on risky titles (during my tenure, Spore and Godfather budgets had ballooned to ridiculous levels, and even spending on middle of the road products like The Simpsons and Superman had reached appalling heights). Meanwhile, I advocated hyper-aggressive R&D investment and acquisitions in a transition to digital distribution and games-as-service; combined with an approach to Wall Street that would position EA as a smaller but significantly more profitable company in the near term, with substantially improved long-term prospects when the digital future arrived.
This suggestion was derided by EA execs at the time -- they literally couldn't imagine going to Wall Street with a message of increased profitability rather than top-line revenue growth. They wanted to make the transition to digital while continuing to grow the packaged goods business. Ironically, they saw their looming innovator's dilemma as clearly as any company in the video game business back in 2006. They just weren't bold enough to act on that knowledge.
The old EA model was a basically a three-legged stool: 1) a profitable, recurring sports business (Madden, FIFA); 2) franchise games that produced big hits on a less frequent basis (The Sims, Need for Speed, Command & Conquer); and 3) a collection of digital assets (e.g.: Pogo & JAMDAT, and now Playfish) and distribution/partnership titles (e.g.: Rock Band & Left 4 Dead). Of those, the only stool leg left intact is the third one. Without the digital assets and the EA Distribution titles, they'd be in even more serious hot water.
EA's sports business has been hamstrung by vastly increased licensing costs (as I've discussed before) and failure to transition to a subscription/variable pricing model. This has substantially reduced the profitability of a business that EA used to rely on to fund other, riskier bets.
But by far the greatest failure of Riccitiello's strategy has been the EA Games division. JR bet his tenure on EA's ability to "grow their way through the transition" to digital/online with hit packaged goods titles. They honestly believed that they had a decade to make this transition (I think it's more like 2-3 years). Since the recurring-revenue sports titles were already "booked" (i.e., fully accounted for in the Wall Street estimates) it fell to EA Games to make hits that could move the needle. It's been a very ugly scene, indeed. From Spore, to Dead Space, to Mirror's Edge, to Need for Speed: Undercover, it's been one expensive commercial disappointment for EA Games after another. Not to mention the shut-down of Pandemic, half of the justification for EA's $850MM acquisition of Bioware-Pandemic. And don't think that Dante's Inferno, or Knights of the Old Republic, is going to make it all better. It's a bankrupt strategy.
So now, a couple of months after the board granted JR another $7 million worth of restricted stock units in addition to 140,000 options and EA Games president Frank Gibeau another $2 million in RSU's, EA cuts financial estimates to the bone. And don't believe this is the end of the bleeding. This latest stock drop, if consistent with the after-hours trading, will wipe out virtually all of the gain from 2009. Unfortunately, the loss comes after one of my favorite EA execs, business warrior John Schappert, returned from Microsoft to take over as COO and started firing 15% of the workforce to reduce costs.
With EA's enterprise value down below $4 billion, it's remarkable that nobody has stepped in to put them out of their misery with an acquisition. Certainly, Disney has been looking at them since I was at the house of the mouse back in the early 90's. And there are Chinese companies, like TenCent, that could easily swallow EA whole.
It's equally amazing that the board continues to support the existing management team through this debacle. Since JR took over, the company has destroyed over $11 billion in market value. Certainly, some of that was the economy and the general erosion of value on NASDAQ, but Activision (the blue line below, vs. EA's red line) has experienced far milder effects from the recession:



It's remarkably hard to kill a company doing $4 billion in revenues. But with flat or down stock performance since Q3 2003, how long are the institutional investors going to continue to hope against hope for a turn-around?

1,010 comments:

1 – 200 of 1010   Newer›   Newest»
Robin said...

Great post, Mitch

Bob said...

thanks for the post Mitch & for the boldness to state what no one else would. Bets among the analyst I speak with are that John doesn't last the end of FY.

Dino said...

Hi Mitch,

thank you for posting...finally someone tells it how it is. I knew I wasn't going crazy thinking this every day I came to work.

D

kelly said...

If you really want to see JR's impact, compare Sara Lee's stock performance versus EA's since JR switched...

firstadopter said...

I wrote a similar missive in November on why the CEO of ERTS should be fired here: http://bit.ly/4AZ3bZ

A lot of former EA people agreed with my post.

Anonymous said...

Pretty easy to see you're not a gamer, at least. :-/

Anonymous said...

ANY VIEW ON UBISOFT's strategy ?

Anonymous said...

Interesting article and good to see you still like British music!

Glenn said...

I think from a gamers perspective EA had the right idea. Making strong original IP. From a business perspective though this has not been a good choice. As you say EA have had a real opportunity to push forward in the digital space and have done so tentatively.

I have a lot of respect for EA as a company now..but my respect does not make the share holders happy.

Any chance of Zenimax getting in and buying up EA like they did Bethesda?

BuRN3R said...

JR's whole philosophy is that high-quality games equate to profitability. And since he took over, the games EA publishes have been much better. And in his tenure he has swayed public opinion, with people no longer viewing EA as a money-grubbing, borg-like empire.

Its easy to point the finger at Riccitiello, just look at the stock price, but consider the problem he was facing when he came in. EA games sucked, their operating costs were soaring, and their was no plan to respond to the changing market. The company as a whole was bloated, along with it's stock price.

The necessary deflation has destroyed its stock-price. And when stockholders start losing money (especially losing $40 a share), they start making drastic decisions. Given enough time, I believe JR can make EA profitable again. Its unfortunate that time is not on their side.

Anonymous said...

Amen - how does the Board just sit there and let him destroy all remaining value?

Cadillac said...

Coming from recently being on the inside of EA I have to say Mitch's observations are spot on. In desperation however, they are letting go lots of brain trust in a "better-late-than-never?" bid to cut costs. Silly EA.

alexis bonte said...

Hum Mitch has been wrong before, I actually remember when at benchmark over 1 year ago he told me that eRepublik would interest 250.000 people at most (we just announced our millionth user :). Still he has a point about EA's strategy and the industry in general. There is way to much focus on so called AAA boxed titles and not enough people with web / internet experience and that is where the cake is going. Still moves like the Playfish acquisition are encouraging but they probably need to do more than that to get back on track (ie: get some web guys at the top with the game guys and business guys.. fast).

Anonymous said...

Why does nobody mention the less than arm's length transaction that was the purchase of bioware-pandemic in the context of this strategy and management discussion???

Anonymous said...

Ya cause the old EA was so much better, recycled titles every year, and your wonderful subscription based sports games sounds like a real F you to consumers.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, EA could go back to releasing crappy yearly updates of all their franchises like they used to, but I believe that people were finally getting bored of the same crappy sports updates and the same crappy need for speed updates, year in and year out.

Riccitiello had to change something and has done much to change the company's reputation, but it will take time for his changes to have more of an effect on the company.

The blog talks about blockbuster titles such as Call of Duty, but it was the fourth installment that really started bringing in all the cash for Activision, as it takes time to grow a brand. These brands have to be nurtured properly or they get run into the ground and lose all their popularity.

Look at EA's own Need for Speed games and their Medal of Honor games, once all conquering brands but run into the ground with yearly updates. 2015 who developed the most acclaimed Medal of Honor, called Allied Assault, left EA for Activision renamed themselves Infinty Ward and then created the Call of Duty series for them. Imagine what a moneyspinner Medal of Honor could have been for EA had they managed to hold onto that development team with a more developer friendly attitude. Instead they let the developers go and churned out half-assed updates to Medal of Honor on a nearly 6 monthly turnaround and drove the brand into the ground.

So basically, I'm all for what Riccitiello is doing and I think he came on the scene as EA were finally getting their comeuppance from gamers for releasing such substandard crap for so long. He had an absolute mountain to climb to get back the trust of gamers, but by god he is actually managing to do it gradually!

Anonymous said...

@Anon:
Except the new 'high quality' releases like Deadspace were all being made before JR took over. He actually slashed R&D and a ton of new IPs since he came in. He understands very little about game quality.

We need to ditch that crook.

L. Chan said...

I am also an ex-employee of EA, and as a gamer and employee, JR really turned the company around. The games are astounding and the work/life balanced improved. The "wives" blog that became famous, is hardly the truth inside EA anymore.

But I hadn't known this much about JR's mishandling of EA's assets. I and many others may still be doing what we love if it weren't for those financial mishaps!

Kenneth Hurley said...

Predicted this miss back in October 2008.

http://www.phatyaffle.com/index.php?option=com_fireboard&Itemid=107&func=view&id=781&catid=38

Also, are you forgetting that he lost them $500 million in 2001 for EA.com?

Anonymous said...

Wow, Mitch. Thanks for reminding us all what a visionary genius you are. Just couldn't help the "I told them so", could you?

Rick said...

Where is the EA v Tencent stock graph?

Anonymous said...

I worked for EA as a contractor for seven years and produced many games for them.

They have good people, but they're overall strategy is simply a lie. I mean look at iPhone. People are used to free games.

Mitch couldn't be more dead-on. Having served under the regime there for many years, and now being an investor/trader, I would never touch EA stock as a trader. It's RADIOACTIVE. They're not like AAPL or GES that surgically position their earnings with care every quarter as to be realistic, undercommitt, and over deliver on EPS, w/ upside guidance.

It is a shame. It seems no one over there cares about shareholder value. They have to get the "DFWMIFV" or "Don't F@#*( with me, I'm fully vested!" ego out of the halls of management.

I have news for you: If you're fully vested and still there, well, no one has to F&@#$ with you cause EA already has! They're stock's in the tank! I remember when my friends left EA and dumped their stock in the high 50's ...
Best of luck getting those lofty stock prices back.

If I had the $5.59B I would aquire the company, keep the great dev teams, trim ALL the fat, and take EA into the new millenium with digital downloads and subscription-based business models.

They have EA Sports- the strongest brand in the biz. Seems hard to imagine a bunch of smart people up in San Francisco still can't check the egos at the door and focus on reality of running a profitable publicly traded company.

EA Sports license is #1 but their EPS is -4 !!! Nice investment, but no thanks!
-SCN13

David said...

ERTS Pre-recession $58, now? $18
GME Pre-recession $53, now? $23
SNE Pre-recession $55, now? $29
THQI Pre-recession $30, now? $6
NTDOY Pre-recession $55, now? $31
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TTWO Pre-recession, $26, now? $10

You hold up Activision as one example, which is deceiving, because it's the ONLY major public gaming company that has relatively weathered the storm (in large part due to WoW and finding a hit in CoD). It has nothing to do with the visionary D2C type of leadership you're espousing. So, let's just try to have a little balance here

And I LOL'd at your "amazing Zynga" comment in your follow-up post. The emperor may have no clothes, but the child crying out is really just a child crying out.

Looking forward to playing Battlefield Bad Company 2. What we're we talking about again?

Anonymous said...

Hi Mitch,

Nice to read your perspective. stratergiwise i dont know as where EA is heading but I think at some point of time every firm will transform itself into digital distribution apart from that as in product industry now matter how good you are in implementing strategy its going to fail at some point of time. i think ea is just step behind in implementing strategy. They should be thinking in customers perspective not as product perspective. If You think in customers perspective you will get the right product into right hand. & EA lacks this.

bloggingchina said...

you could also mention the $168m EA pissed away investing in China's The9. It was one of the dumbert investments ever made by a US media firm in China

Tencent is only the tip of the icepberg. The Chinese game firms are coming into the US and I think EA still doesn't understand what that means for them
http://digicha.com/?p=24

Anonymous said...

Whatever financials may think, I, as a little anonymous gamer, have to say that the few EA games that I played since I began playing have really improved in the last 3 years. The games I played the most in terms of fun and duration were : Mass Effect, Rock Band, Brütal Legend, Left for Dead and SKATE.

Of course, there where strategic errors like the Beatles Rock Band, but you have to admit that some NEW franchises emerged, with a great rentability potential.

The fact is I will buy Mass Effect 2 (already pre-ordered) and Rock Band 3 as soon as they come out, and I already bought LOADS of Rock Band songs.

I find it really insulting when financial strategies occult the potential of high quality games, and turn companies into easy and quick cash machines like pay-to-play solutions (dreaming of the WOW grail that no one until now managed to clone), or paying DLC, where you have the feeling of buying an incomplete game.

The final client (the gamer) should be the main worry of game makers, not the stockholders...

Anonymous said...

EA biggest problem is their games suck.

Anonymous said...

Good read...I wish EA would have spent more time on the quality of their existing products like Madden, NCAA football and NBA Live rather building all these other titles that no one buys. I used to line up for EA sports games now I either rent them or wait for a used copy because I've pretty much been disappointed with the progress over the last 5 years. The "bad management" decisions have permiated all the way down to the game level and you can see it in their games. It's a shame really.

Mike Roggero said...

Mitch -- Nice to see you haven't changed since our days together at Disney. Cheers, Mike Roggero.

Anonymous said...

Someone already covered it, and this is why blogging isn't journalism.

There was this thing called the recession. Nobody is doing well. The article is written as though consumers have just changed what publisher/developer they are spending their discretionary income.

An exec of EA leaves and bitches about the company and thinks he knows better and the masses assume he's credible. Yep, never heard this story before.

People bitch about EA games being low quality, so they fix that. People bitch that EA is mean to their employees, and they fix that.

They just hate EA. It's what people do.

Anonymous said...

Some interesting insight from someone from the inside. Easy to take shots at EA based on where they are today vs. a few years ago. But to suggest that the digital assets are the only leg on the stool is self serving. The fact that its coming for the guy who sold JAMDAT to EA for $650m to which EA had to write down more then half suggests the person who sold it wasn't completely upfront about the ongoing profitability of the asset. As we are well aware, the traditional console business as we know it has changed dramatically. We also know its hard for the larger companies to make those transitions. We saw this in the Auto Industry, Banking Industry and now in the Gaming Industry. So while there is a lot of truth in what has been suggested, I suggest we look at all the major publishers and take stock in the challenges they all face.

Why take on JR and EA, have to think there is something in it for the blogger.

Anonymous said...

EA writes down value of Jamdat by $368 million

In its Q3 conference call, Electronic Arts has announced that it is taking a goodwill impairment charge in its wireless business of $368 million.

I take “its wireless business” to mean Jamdat, which EA acquired in 2005 for $680 million. The impairment means that EA now values Jamdat at closer to $294 million, less than half the price it paid for it.

So why the charge.

My guess is that there are some questions about the intrinsic value of the goodwill in the Jamdat business (its brand, intellectual property and so on), and so EA thought it prudent to write it down to a lower figure. At the same time, perhaps EA views this economic downturn as an opportunity to clean up its balance sheet, in the same way that it is using the recession as an excuse to prune out unnecessary SKUs, shift employment to low-cost locations and shut down whole facilities.

Anonymous said...

Your asshole is clear that EA Games will not fail you're angry because they have given you a foot in the ass.

Anonymous said...

Another know-it-all exec, no better or worse than some of the ones still at EA.

Tell me, how do you set up subscriptions on a console? Or how you ship a digital game day and date the same as a boxed product. I guess you are making PC and mobile games only.

Reduce annual expenses and headcount? A great executive idea. However, cutting 10% every year is waste of money. It means you are hiring and planning improperly.

If there is one thing EA is guilty of it's not testing the waters with something small. Instead there's an exec decree to focus on "x" and after months of work across the company it's obvious that things aren't going to work out as planned.

EA does have more problems, but some of the armchair CEO comments are pretty ridiculous if you know who they are coming from in real life.

loslonelyman said...

The Only EA sports title that improves year after year is the NHL series. I bought the original Rockband set(Special Edition) and was so put off at the inclusion of cymbals on newer sets(no way to add them to my sets) i stopped investing in songs. After an underwhelming purchase of the Madden Collectors edition...other than NHL...EA has lost me as a customer.

Zsombor said...

Very interesting article! From a gaming perspective, it seemed lately as EA was making the better decisions, by releasing less, but higher quality titles.

But from this new perspective I've realized other things. They aren't just changing strategy for the sake of their purchasers, but because otherwise they can't afford it.

Thanks, Mitch! I'll be checking on this blog from now on.

Anonymous said...

I no longer consider buying their games at all due to their DRM strategy. I think they could just lie down and die, so someone else could take over their titles somehow...

Anonymous said...

Hey hey -- HO HO -- riccatello has got to go

I totally agree. One of the worst cases of entrenched Mgmt and a messed up corporate governance. It all started with the most absurd acquisition of JR's own in investment (from his days at elevation) bioware/pandemic. How much did he make on the invemtive fees on that deal. Hopefully it will end with his 7 million of restricited stock units as he fires 20 percent of the workforce. What a great guy. I can go on and on buy the lasky did a good enough job. EA BOARD: PLEASE WAKE UP.

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David said...

Loslonelyman, it appears you have not heard of a little franchise called Fifa. You know, the one whose metacritic scored have continued to increase (now pushing 90) and the one that is contending with MW2 in terms of total sales.

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Anonymous said...

On a smaller level, I'd have to add that EA's operations make no sense.

I contacted EA through the website because my pre-ordered copy of Mass Effect 2 hadn't been shipped yet, so I just got an email tonight from "a notification-only address that cannot accept incoming email" telling me that they cancelled my order...!?

I thought the whole business model was about them taking/keeping my money...

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Art Forums said...

I have written about EA's failings many times and agree with much of what you say. By coincidence my latest article was just this week: http://www.bruceongames.com/2010/02/09/no-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel-for-electronic-arts/

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If you really want to see JR's impact, compare Sara Lee's stock performance versus EA's since JR switched...

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Büyü Çeşitleri said...

Why does nobody mention the less than arm's length transaction that was the purchase of bioware-pandemic in the context of this strategy and management discussion???

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From a business perspective though this has not been a good choice. As you say EA have had a real opportunity to push forward in the digital space and have done so tentatively.

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Ya cause the old EA was so much better, recycled titles every year, and your wonderful subscription based sports games sounds like a real F you to consumers........thats all........

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