Activision Blizzard's (NASDAQ: ATVI) last earnings report saw the publisher deliver record first-quarter sales. Even more impressive, the company actually did so without having released a new video game in the period. That speaks to the success of a business-model transition that's occurred over the last decade -- moving from an exclusively hit-driven model to one focused on generating revenue after the original sale. However, continued success still hinges on delivering an appealing value proposition.
On the heels of pushback from Destiny 2 players over the game's content and mechanics, Activision Blizzard is taking a controversial approach to the core game and add-on content for its upcoming release Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. It looks like two of the company's biggest franchises have a lot of proving to do.
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Black Ops 4 makes some big departures
Rumors circulated in the lead-up to the unveiling of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 that the game would be the first mainline entry in the series not to feature a single-player campaign mode. The debut presentation for the game occurred on May 17; it proved that those rumors were true. The game would revolve around multiplayer experiences, and introduce a variant of the "battle royale" gameplay style made popular by titles like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and Fortnite.
That wasn't the only big change in store for the series. On June 11, Activision revealed that, rather than selling individual expansion packs for the game, it would only make major updates available to those who purchased a "season pass" for the title.
The "Black Ops Pass" will be part of the next Call of Duty's premium editions, bringing the cost of experiencing the main game plus major additional content to at least $100 -- not counting any extra spending on in-game items or currency. That's a bold move in some respects, particularly given that the game will not have the single-player content that many series fans are fond of. Unsurprisingly, the upcoming game's season-pass model has generated complaints from fans in online communities.
Black Ops Pass will include the staggered release of 12 additional maps, four exclusive characters for the game's battle royale mode, and extra scenarios for the game's zombie-hunting mode. It's possible that releasing Black Ops 4 sans single-player and with season-pass-only expansions will make for a more profitable release. However, it's also possible that this tack ultimately does more damage to the franchise than that short-term benefit is worth.
The Destiny franchise approaches a pivotal release
In Destiny 2: Forsaken, the upcoming add-on expansion for the game set to release in September, Activision is facing what could be a pivotal release for the franchise. The base game got off to a seemingly promising start when it was released last year, but the title quickly saw user engagement dive as players left the game due to a range of issues.
So far, fans of the series seem pleased with what the company is planning to add to the game, but it's only to the level of the fan reaction to what Destiny 2 was expected to deliver from the outset. Prior to Destiny 2's release, one developer stated that the title would feature so much story content that people might complain about it. Upon release, many players actually criticized the sparsity of story content and had negative things to say about what was there.
Leading up to the base game's debut, director Luke Smith said that the game would have more content than any other game from Bungie -- the franchise's developer and the studio responsible for the early games in the Halo series. Yet after its release, the game was pilloried by the fan base for being short on content. So, while Destiny 2's promised upgrades in the Forsaken expansion have some fans intrigued, it's probably fair to say that the series has had a problem with overpromising and underdelivering. Destiny 2's player base has already declined substantially, and another disappointing release might damage the viability of the franchise.
Thus far, Activision's increasing post-sale monetization of its triple-A titles has been a huge win for investors. Some game fans have been vocal about their displeasure with the heavy monetization, but it's not currently having an overall negative impact on financial performance. That's not guaranteed to continue, however.
There is a real risk that Activision Blizzard comes up against some unexpected downside for its monetization shift, particularly in light of the recent explosion of popularity for less-expensive games like Fortnite and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. The shooter genre looks more competitive than ever before, and Activision's big releases and expansions could suffer if the content doesn't meet player expectations.
Overall, Activision's long-term growth outlook remains promising, and it's certainly possible that this year's Call of Duty and Destiny releases will prove very successful. That said, investors should continue to monitor player sentiments about the company's key franchises, and look at how its offerings stack up against the competition from a value perspective.
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