Can Electronic Arts Really Become A Digital Gaming Powerhouse?

Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello talked a big game Wednesday, telling analysts on its year-end conference call that the 29-year-old company is well on its way to a major transformation.

It argued that instead of creating hits that are sold on store shelves for videogame consoles, the Redwood City, Calif.-based company wants to take popular franchises, like Madden or Need for Speed, and digitally distribute them across a number of platforms, such as mobile, social and PC, to create recurring revenue streams.

Riccitiello was unwavering in his commitment:

“The consumer has changed. 200 million console players have become 1.5 billion consumers gaming on multiple devices,” he said. “Today, we are a very different company….From here, it is about building a better, more predictable, and more profitable business, a business that is less dependent on individual hits and more deeply anchored in the ongoing monetization of game franchises.”

But the big question is whether EA can turn the ship when there are 8,000 employees on it who are used to doing business the old way.

Habits are hard to break, especially when it requires replacing a controller with a mouse or a touchscreen. In the meantime, some of its more nimble competitors are getting most of the credit as the industry shifts to digital.

For example, earlier this year, we watched as the private market valuation of Zynga–EA’s much smaller and younger competitor–exceeded EA’s public market valuation. Zynga was reportedly worth between $7 and $9 billion, while EA was valued at roughly $6 billion.

Today, EA’s market cap stands at about $7.25 billion.

Zynga, which makes such Facebook games as FarmVille and CityVille and has dabbled in mobile games, reportedly had revenues of $850 million in 2010. In comparison, EA’s digital revenues totaled $833 million for its fiscal year 2011. (Meanwhile, its overall revenues totaled much more, or $3.6 billion.)

Still, smaller competitors, such as Zynga, which strictly make money from digital revenues, are viewed as not having a lot of baggage and can go hard after something new without sacrificing the old.

Just last week, there was a sign that EA wasn’t winning that battle–even internally.

Electronic Arts disclosed that its COO John Schappert resigned. Rumors indicated that he was joining Zynga, although Zynga has not confirmed the appointment.

Despite that potential set-back, and EA’s public perception, it has been trying.

It has been on an acquisition spree for the past couple of years, picking up everything from Playfish, a social-games developer, to Chillingo, a mobile-games publisher. Earlier this week, it bought a small mobile-games studio called Firemint. (Of course, those investments also become a curse because they have to start paying off.)

Beyond acquisitions, it has also re-prioritized the work it was doing.

On the call, Riccitiello said that involved paring back the number of titles it was making from roughly 70 to around 20. While that was something of a defensive move, he said they are now shifting to offense, by picking the game franchises they do decide to build and porting them across several platforms to increase their profitability. “Over the coming years, we will transform EA from a packaged goods company to a fully integrated digital entertainment company.”

He calls it the “games-as-a-service” model, which is comparable to the software industry switching from a licensed packaged goods model to SAAS, or software as a service, several years ago.

Under this philosophy, he said, they will rely on intellectual property and strong brands, such as EA sports and Hasbro, and build out a platform of registered users that can be marketed to (in Q4, it had 112 million users, roughly twice as many from a year ago). It’s also making managers experts across mobile, social and console, rather than making silos for each category.

“It’s a big change,” Riccitiello said. “As an investor, you can see this as a way to better manage our IP, and drive up the ARPU for our core properties.”

At least one analyst was reluctant to believe the transformation could take place. How does Riccitiello plan to get everyone on board?

“If only you could spend a couple of weeks with us,” Riccitiello joked.

His more serious answer was that they’ve spent the past three years conducting a managerial change: “We’ve identified intellectual property owners inside of our company, and we’re sort of organizing around that.” Those individuals are charged with plans that involve console, PC, mobile, social and a variety of business models, including microtransactions and subscriptions.

The change will be relatively slow. This year the company is projecting digital revenues to total $1 billion, increasing roughly 20 percent over 2011.

And despite all of its efforts, the company will face other challenges, including some that are out of its control. For instance, the company’s EA Sports business is facing two potential league lockouts and this year there won’t be a FIFA World Cup title. Those three things represent roughly a $250 million revenue gap.

It’s also launching its biggest launch campaign for a game in EA’s history for Battlefield 3, and it’s unclear when the highly anticipated launch of Star Wars, an online multi-player game, will occur. Depending on when it is ready, EA’s earnings per share could fluctuate by 15 cents.

Overall, at least some people were sold on the picture Riccitiello painted.

The company’s stock increased a modest $1.76 a share yesterday, or roughly 8.8 percent, to close at $21.68. And Piper Jaffray analysts raised their price target on EA’s shares from $19.50 to $25.00.


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