Videogame Publishers Highlight Digital Revenues But Remain Divided on Meaning

Activision Blizzard joins a growing list of videogame publishers that are placing more emphasis on digital revenues over selling boxed games at retail.

In its first-quarter results released today, the company, which is known for its Call of Duty and World of Warcraft games, said its revenues from digital channels increased 30 percent year over year in the first quarter.

What’s more, on a non-GAAP basis, digital channels accounted for more than 50 percent of net revenues, or roughly $378 million.

However, what’s becoming clear is that the definition of digital is a moving target for all parties involved, a trend that will likely continue as companies experiment with new business models and ways to deliver games to consumers.

Activision’s big source of digital during the quarter came from the $15 content pack for Call of Duty: Black Ops, which provides new areas for players to explore that were not included in the the original game sold at retail. It’s available on Xbox today and is expected to launch on Sony’s PlayStation Network and the PC in the second quarter.

That’s much different from Electronic Arts, which said last week that its digital revenues for its fiscal year ended March 31 totaled $833 million, exceeding its forecast of $750 million.

When EA talks about digital, it refers to mobile games and social games on platforms, such as Facebook. For the most part, it’s not referring to downloadable content available on consoles (although it has that, too).

The differing points of view also come down to business models.

Mobile games and social games are often free and either monetized through advertising or through virtual goods that are purchased in the game. Online games are often paid for via subscriptions and console games frequently require a $60 upfront payment with the option of paying for more downloaded content later.

Thomas Tippl, Activision’s COO and CFO, said while digital revenues grew at 30 percent, it was also able to maintain margins of up to 50 percent since most of its digital content was leveraging the company’s large online communities and popular franchises.

Call of Duty and it’s $15 content pack is one example:

During the earnings call, Activision said that Call of Duty: Black Ops has now officially become the best-selling title of all time in dollars across the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and the PC in the U.S. and Europe. Additionally, the popularity of that title was able to drive massive sales of the digital add-on pack. While only released a few days ago, it has the potential to do better than most console games at retail.

“The Call of Duty content pack shattered records with 1.4 million downloads in the first 24 hours,” Tippl said. “We no longer think about launch events, but long-term on-going relationships with players. The response from fans underscores this approach.”

The company also discussed other digital initiatives, of which some could arguably be considered social, although they are not on Facebook.

In the works is a next-generation massively mutli-player online game; a micro-transaction game for China; a digital platform surrounding the Call of Duty franchise; a new property from Bungie; and Skylander’s Spyro’s Adventure, a new children’s game coming out that will tie the Internet together with real-life $10 toys.

But not ever in the company’s earnings release, or during the call, did Activision place much emphasis on mobile games or social games.

Actually, Facebook was mentioned once. Activision said that since Call of Duty: Black Ops First Strike launched on Feb. 1, players have spent an average of 58 minutes a day playing online, which is more than the 55 minutes an average Facebook user spends a day on the social network.

So, maybe it can build its own communities?

Still, one could argue that mobile and social are key components to the digital gaming experience.

In addition to Electronic Arts’ many investments in the space, including the purchase of Playfish, a social games publisher, Disney also acquired Playdom. Both plan to use the publishers to bring some of their more recognizable content from other platforms to Facebook. Social games are also becoming a massive business for privately held companies, like Zynga.

An analyst during Activision’s earnings call this afternoon asked about how the company viewed the various emerging platforms across the videogames industry.

In response, Activision’s CEO Robert Kotick said: “You hit on the most interesting of the fundamentals that are redefining interactive entertainment. More people are playing games than ever before.

“Facebook has done a good job of introducing interactive entertainment to people who have never engaged in gaming of that kind…We’ve always taken the approach of platform agnosticism. We deliver services across devices with a display and a microprocessor. We have to prioritize the resources based on the opportunity. As we look out three to five years, we see there being a lot more displays with microprocessors that will be capable of playing games. We are so excited about the prospects of the future. If it has a microprocessor and a display, our content can be there.”

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