After a blockbuster year with record sales, video-games publishers show no signs of letting up in 2008 as they prepare for the release of a parade of new titles for legions of gamers. The gaming community is already buzzing over the long-awaited release of such titles as Grand Theft Auto IV from Take-Two ( TTWO), Spore from Electronic Arts ( ERTS) and Little Big Planet, a new game from Media Molecule, a small game developer. Industry observers say some of the releases could spark a new trend in games offerings. The stakes are huge. THQ ( THQI) is pinning its hopes on the release of Saints Row 2. And Nintendo hopes its new fitness game will provide a successful template for its best-selling console. Together, these new games could take the industry even higher. Despite fears of a slowdown in the economy and weak consumer spending, industry sales were up 52% to $13.2 billion, as of November, from a year ago. Gamers saw one of the biggest lineups ever with releases that included such blockbusters as Halo 3, Call of Duty IV, Rock Band, and Guitar Hero 3. The year clearly belonged to Activision ( ATVI), which not only
topped sales charts through the crucial holiday season, but also pulled off a $18.9 billion merger with Vivendi Games to become the industry's largest publisher. While publishers haven't completely disclosed the titles under development, here's a list of some games that could have the greatest impact on stock prices in 2008.
Grand Theft Auto IV: Video-games publisher Take-Two has had a rough year with a change in management and a run-in with games-certification authorities over what was deemed excessive violence in one of its titles, Manhunt 2. The release of Grand Theft Auto IV, which was moved from October this year to early 2008, could change the
company's fortunes . However, the market may have already priced the success of the game into the stock. "Everyone knows about it and anticipates it will be a huge hit so the recent strength in Take-Two stock could reflect that," says Ahrens. Take-Two shares were off 7 cents, or 0.3%, to $18.59 on Friday. The stock gained 5.4% this year. Strong initial sales of Grand Theft Auto IV, which will be available for Sony's ( SNE) PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's ( MSFT) Xbox 360 console, could bring back the feel-good factor around Take-Two and offer the stock a short-term pop. Take-Two could sell 7.5 million to 8.5 million copies of the game in its fiscal 2008, which ends Oct. 31, and 10.5 million to 11.5 million in the first full year, estimates Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan. Wedbush Morgan does not own shares of the company or have an investment banking relationship with it. The game could sell 17 million copies over its lifetime, predicts online fantasy video-games stock exchange, The simExchange.
As the title nears its release date, analysts will be watching closely for signs of any weakness or a surge in interest, factors that could significantly affect Take-Two's stock. The game will also be important for other publishers. "Its success can take away sales from the others," says Ahrens. "I think everyone is going to be watching it to see how strong the game will be." Spore: Few of EA's recent games have received as much buzz as this upcoming release. Created by Will Wright, the game designer behind EA's blockbuster The Sims and SimCity titles, Spore is eagerly awaited by gamers. A PC game, it is built on the idea that a player can participate in the various levels of evolution -- from a single cell to a creature to an ecosystem around it. The simExchange expects 5.4 million copies of the game to be sold through its lifetime. "That has come down from 6.5 million units earlier because there is some skepticism out there about the game," says Divnich. " Spore will have to prove itself in the market unlike a Halo which will sell well irrespective of what the reviews are." Because of the mixed opinions on Spore, the game has the potential to be a huge hit or a miss. EA has already delayed the release of the game once, pushing it back from 2007 to late 2008.
" Spore has been hyped for years and years now," says Kyle Orland, a blogger for games blog Joystiq.com. "EA has a lot of franchises and is not going to fail if Spore doesn't meet expectations," he says. "Yet it will be watched very closely because it's all about expectations in the industry." With the release date uncertain, the possibility of Spore's success hasn't been priced into EA's stock, which is why analysts say they will be watching EA closely next year for details on the game's release and initial reactions to the title. Shares of EA were down 19 cents, or 0.3%, to $58.49 Friday. Saints Row 2: THQ hasn't confirmed a release date for the game but gamers hope to see the title hit shelves in the second half of 2008. A successful release could revive THQ's fortunes on the stock market. THQ shares fell nearly 13% this year while competitors Activision and EA were up 70% and 14.7%, respectively. THQ also plans to release a game based on Disney ( DIS) Pixar's next film Wall*E in spring 2008, which may be neglected by gaming enthusiasts but do well among children. "2007 was a bad year for THQ," says Dan Ahrens, portfolio manager of the Ladenburg Thalman Gaming and Casino Fund. "They could make a comeback next year with their games related to movie titles." The fund has a position in EA, Activision and THQ.
Wii Fit: 2007 was a banner year for Nintendo as the Wii became a gaming phenomenon. Wii Fit, which the company demonstrated in September, could extend its run in 2008. The fitness game allows users to stand on a special accessory called the Wii Balance Board and see their movements on the board reflected in the game. "Nintendo does some very creative stuff that's a complete hit or miss," says Divnich. "The Wii Fit is being targeted towards the whole family so it will be interesting to see how the U.S. market takes to it." While Nintendo's Wii may be a huge success, independent publishers have yet to see strong sales for their Wii games. Wii Fit's success could show that all Wii gamers are looking for are titles that are interactive, fun and easy to play. Metal Gear Solid 4: Publisher Konami's ( KNM) game for Sony's PlayStation 3 console is part of a hugely successful series. The game, scheduled for release in second-quarter fiscal 2008, will be a bigger deal for Sony than for Konami. The game will be released exclusively for the PS3, a console that has been struggling against rivals Xbox 360 and the Wii. "2008 is going to be the year when PS3 proves itself or falls down," says Orland. "So far they have just about kept themselves in the game but next year is when they have to go for the kill. With releases such as Metal Gear Solid IV Sony has given itself a chance at success."
Shares of Konami were up 25 cents, or 0.8%, to $32.25 Friday. The stock has been up 6.3% this year. Little Big Planet: Another exclusive game for the PS3 from a smaller games developer, Media Molecule, Little Big Planet made a big impact with its demo last year. The game allows users to manipulate almost every object in their environment and build on it to create their own space. If successful, Little Big Planet could not only revive Sony's fortunes in the video games industry but also get publishers thinking about designing games where users have greater ability to design the levels in the game. "With Little Big Planet, the idea was not to put big developer resources into it," says Orland. "You are counting on the people playing it to make the game good and that's a trend we could see more of in 2008."