It's party time for the video-game business, but investors may have to wait a while to join the festivities.
The industry's primary confab, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, gets under way next Tuesday in Los Angeles. But the revelry will unofficially begin Thursday night, when
takes the wraps off its new Xbox in an infomercial to be broadcast on MTV. The celebrations will continue into next week, when
unveil their own next-generation game consoles.
The new machines are sure to draw a lot of excitement from game enthusiasts with their expected features such as cutting-edge processors, support for high-definition television and networking capabilities. But you can forgive investors if they don't get too excited just yet.
"There's going to be lots of flash" at E3, said David Cole, president of industry research firm DFC Intelligence. "A lot of it is going to be hype that's not going to have a lot of impact in the next year or so on the bottom line."
All the buzz about the new hardware may eventually end up generating oodles of sales, but investors will be hard-pressed to find a way to cash in on that, at least in the short term. Nintendo is a foreign company whose shares don't trade in the U.S. Microsoft and Sony are huge corporations for whom video-game sales comprise only a fraction of their overall results. And for video-game software providers such as
, the new consoles are likely to cause more pain than joy in the near term, hurting sales of current-generation games and driving up development costs.
"The history of
the game software stocks is that they don't act well in a year such as this," says Steve Monticelli, president of Mosaic Investments, who looks at, but doesn't hold any positions in, the game software makers. "Maybe there will be news coming out of E3 that will provide a lift, but at this point I'm not expecting that."
That's not to say E3 is meaningless for investors. Indeed, amid the crowds of gamers and developers will be a sizable contingent from Wall Street. Just like the enthusiasts, analysts and investors will be previewing games and testing out the new consoles. But their point in doing so is to get an early lead on which titles are likely to do well in the coming year and which companies are poised to succeed further down the road.
Last year, for instance, Microsoft and
used E3 to build buzz around
Grand Theft Auto San Andreas
, respectively. Though not released until months after the show, those two titles ended up being the top-selling video games last year.
Though they risk being drowned out in all the hardware noise, the big software publishers are not only showing up to E3 this year, they plan on showing off dozens of new games, including some geared for the next-generation machines. EA, for instance, will be debuting more than 20 titles at the show, including a game based on
, the next iteration of its
football franchise, and eight games for mobile phones.
is showing off its
Destroy All Humans
title that it previewed last year and is unveiling a series of new kids-oriented titles, such as a sequel to its game base on the movie
. And to selected guests only, Take-Two will be previewing
, its upcoming title set in the schoolyard.
For his part, Monticelli will be scrutinizing the new
game. The title has the potential to appeal to an older audience beyond the typical 14- to 34-year-old gamer, he said.
"That's a potential theme
at E3: expanding the audience for video games," said Monticelli. "Could that really happen or is there really an age barrier there?"
Other investors have different interests. One of the things that Joe Spiegel, a portfolio manager with Dalek Capital, will be focusing on is games for Sony's PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS. Both have sold well to date, but both may be in need of a hit title to juice sales this holiday season. Software publishers have been hoping that sales of games for the new handheld game systems will help buoy their results during the console transition.
"Until now, I haven't seen anything compelling on either platform," says Spiegel, who is effectively long both EA and Take-Two, shorting put options of both companies.
And beyond the games and devices on the showroom floor, there's always the potential for surprises. Take-Two, for instance, helped boost sales of the PlayStation 2 with its
Grand Theft Auto
series of games, which the company released on the Sony machine months before releasing Xbox versions. The company has yet to give its plans for a next-generation version of
Grand Theft Auto
, but any word on that could have a big impact on the console makers -- and on Take-Two's own stock.