Activision Blizzard has bought King Digital Entertainment for $5.9 billion, marking not only one of the largest acquisitions in videogame history but one of the largest deals ever made in the entertainment business. Comparing this to previous entertainment deals highlights just how extraordinary the figures involved are; the purchase price values King at significantly more than Marvel Entertainment (acquired by Disney for $4.2 billion), Star Wars owner Lucasfilm (Disney again, for $4.1 billion) and movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (acquired by Sony for almost $5 billion). The price dwarfs the $1.5 billion paid by Japanese network SoftBank and mobile publisher GungHo for Supercell back in 2013 - though it's not quite on the same scale as the $7.4 billion price tag Disney paid for Pixar, or in the same ballpark as the $18 billion-odd involved in the merger that originally created Activision Blizzard itself.
How is $5.9 billion justified? Well, it's a fairly reasonable premium of 20% over the company's share price - though if you've been holding on to King shares since its IPO in 2014, you'll still be disappointed, as it's far short of the $22.50 IPO price, or even the $20.50 that the shares traded at on their first day on the open market. The company's share price has been more or less stable this year, but Activision's offer still doesn't make up for the various tumbles shares took through 2014.
A better justification, perhaps, lies in the scale of King's mobile game business. The company is a little off its peak at the moment. Candy Crush Saga, its biggest title, is on a slow decline from an extraordinary peak of success, and other titles aren't growing fast enough to make up for that decline, but it still recorded over half a billion monthly active users (MAUs) in its recently reported second quarter figures. In terms of paying users, the company had 7.6 million paying users each month - more than Blizzard's cash cow, World of Warcraft, and moreover, the average revenue from each of those users was $23.26, far more than a World of Warcraft subscriber pays. King took in $529 million in bookings during the quarter, 81 per cent of it from mobile devices - a seriously appealing set of figures for a company like Activision, which struggles to get even 10 per cent of its revenues from mobile despite its constant lip-service to the platform.
"On paper, this deal turns Activision into a much more broad-based company that's far more in line with the present trajectory of the market at large"
In buying King, Activision instantly makes itself into one of the biggest players in the mobile space, albeit simply by absorbing the company that is presently at the top of the heap. It diversifies its bottom line in a way that investors and analysts have been crying out for it to do, reducing its reliance on console (still damn near half of its revenues) and on the remarkable-but-fading World of Warcraft, and bulking up its anaemic mobile revenues to the point of respectability. On paper, this deal turns Activision into a much more broad-based company that's far more in line with the present trajectory of the market at large, and should assuage the fears of those who think Activision's over-reliance on a small number of core franchises leaves it far more vulnerable than rivals like Electronic Arts.
That's on paper. In practice, though, what has Activision just bought for $5.9 billion? That's a slightly trickier question. The company is, unquestionably, now the proud owner of one of the most talented and accomplished creators and operators of mobile games in the world. King's experience of developing, marketing and, crucially, running mobile games at enormous scale, and the team that accomplished all of that, is undoubtedly valuable in its own right. Those are talents that Activision didn't have yesterday, but will have tomorrow. Are those talents worth $5.9 billion, though? Without wishing for a moment to cast doubt on the skills of those who work at King, no, they're not. $5.9 billion isn't "acquihire" money, and when that's the kind of cash involved we simply can't think of this as an "acquihire" deal. Activision didn't pay that kind of money in order to get access to the talent and experience assembled at King. It paid for King itself, for its ongoing businesses and its IP.
Open the shopping bag, and you might struggle to understand how the contents reach $5.9 billion at the till. King has one remarkable, breakthrough, enormously successful IP - Candy Crush Saga, which still accounts (not including heavily marketed spin-off title Candy Crush Soda Saga) for 39 per cent of the company's gross bookings. No doubt deeply aware of the danger of being over-reliant on revenues from this single title, King has worked incredibly hard to find success for other games in its portfolio. But even its great efforts in this regard have failed to compensate for falling revenues from Candy Crush, and it's notable that a fair amount of the "non-Candy Crush Saga" revenue that the company boasts actually comes from Candy Crush Soda Saga. Other titles like Farm Heroes Saga and Pet Rescue Saga are no doubt profitable and successful in their own right, and King would be a sustainable business even without Candy Crush. But it would be a much, much smaller business, and certainly not a $5.9 billion business.
"King would be a sustainable business even without Candy Crush. But it would be a much, much smaller business, and certainly not a $5.9 billion business"
Despite being generally bullish about King's prospects, then, it's hard to avoid the feeling that the company has done incredibly well out of this acquisition. The undoubted talent and experience of its teams aside, this is, realistically, a company with one IP worth paying for, and unlike Star Wars or the Avengers, Candy Crush is a very new IP whose longevity is entirely untested and whose potential for merchandising or cross-media ventures is dubious at best. King has done better than most of its rivals in the mobile space at applying some of the lessons of its biggest hit to subsequent games and making them successful, but it shares with every other mobile developer the same fundamental problem: none of them has ever worked out how to bottle the lightning that creates a mega-hit and repeat the success down the line. Absent of another Candy Crush game, the odds are that King's business would slowly deflate as the air escaped from the Candy Crush bubble, until the company's sustainable (and undoubtedly profitable) core was what was left. Selling up to Activision at a healthy premium while the company is still "inflated" by the likely unrepeatable success of Candy Crush is a fantastic move for the company's management and investors, but rather less so for Activision.
Perhaps, though, the whole might be more than the sum of its parts? Couldn't Activision, holders of some of the world's favourite console and PC game IP, work with King to leverage that IP and the firm's reach in traditional games, creating new business at the interaction of their respective specialisations? That's a big part of what made Pixar so valuable to Disney, for example; the match between their businesses was of vital importance to that deal, and the same can broadly be said for Disney's other huge acquisitions, Lucasfilm and Marvel. (SoftBank's purchase of Supercell, by comparison, was rather more of a straightforward market-share land grab.) What could this new hybrid, Activision Blizzard King, hope to achieve in terms of overlap that enhances the value of its various component parts?
"We can expect to see plenty of that $5.9 billion being frittered away in goodwill write-downs over the coming few years"
Certainly, Activision has some properties that could work on mobile (I'm thinking specifically of Skylanders here, though others may also fit); some Blizzard properties could also probably work on mobile, though I very much doubt that Blizzard (which retains a strong degree of independence within the group) is a good cultural fit for King, and is deeply unlikely to work with it in any manner which gives up the slightest creative control over its properties. King's properties, meanwhile, don't look terribly enticing as console or PC games, and conversions done this way would almost certainly defeat the entire purpose of the deal anyway, since the objective is to bolster Activision's mobile business. The prospect of a mobile game based on Call of Duty or another major console IP may seem superficially interesting, but we've been down this road before and it didn't lead anywhere impressive. Sure, core gamers are on mobile too, but they've by and large been nonplussed at best and outraged at worst by the notion of engaging with mobile versions of their console favourites. It's genuinely hard to piece together the various IPs and franchises owned by King and Activision and see how there's any winning interaction between them on the table.
This is what makes me keep returning to those other mega-deals - to Star Wars, to Marvel, to Pixar - and finding the contrast between them and Activision / King so extraordinary. Each of those multi-billion dollar deals was carried out by Disney with a very specific, long-term plan in mind that would leverage the abilities of both acquirer and acquired to create something far more than the sum of its parts. Each of those deals had a very clear raison d'être beyond simply "it'll make us bigger." Each of those companies fitted with the new parent like a piece of a puzzle. King's only role in Activision's "puzzle" is that they do mobile, and Activision sucks at mobile; there's no sense of any grand plan that will play out.
In all likelihood, Activision has just paid a huge premium for a company which is past the peak of its greatest hit title and into a period of managed decline, not to mention a company with which its core businesses simply don't fit in any meaningful way. King's a great company in many respects, but its acquisition isn't going to go down as a great deal for Activision - and we can expect to see plenty of that $5.9 billion being frittered away in goodwill write-downs over the coming few years.