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Amid Slowing Facebook Growth, Disney's Playdom Buy Questionable, Says Analyst
Amid Slowing Facebook Growth, Disney's Playdom Buy Questionable, Says Analyst
July 28, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

July 28, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC

Disney's recent buy of Playdom may not have been a wise move, says one analyst, perplexed by the high value of the acquisition in a climate of viral slowdown for Facebook games.

The Mouse paid $563 million, plus the possibility of an additional $200 million if the Social City and Sorority Life developer achieves certain performance targets. That's a possible value of $763 million all told -- a deal that Cowen and Company's Doug Creutz says "looks very expensive."

He says it's unclear whether Disney can possibly expect that kind of return on its investment -- according to the analyst, this is the fourth large-scale acquisition since CEO Bob Iger became CEO in 2005. Among these acquisitions was the equally-massive buy of online kids' social world Club Penguin, for which Disney paid about $700 million during a period when virtual worlds were nearly as popular with investors as social gaming is now. $350 million of that price was target-based incentives that the company ultimately missed.

Not only are such big buys "potentially raising questions about how to evaluate the returns on Disney's strategic deployment of shareholder capital," according to the analyst, the Playdom acquisition seems illogical to Creutz when compared with the relatively recent $400 million Playfish purchase by EA ($300 million up-front, $100 million with performance contingencies).

According to the analyst, Playdom's user base is about 30 percent smaller than the 60 million monthly active users across all platforms that Playfish had at the time it was purchased by EA; on Facebook only, Creutz cites AppData figures to suggest Playdom's monthly actives are about 15 percent smaller -- which makes it questionable why Disney's potential purchase price for Playdom is almost twice as high as Playfish's just eight months ago.

"We are not sure why Disney would pay such a significant premium to the Playfish valuation to acquire Playdom, particularly since user growth for social gaming (on Facebook, at least) appears to have noticeably slowed in the past six months, with some hit games actually beginning to shed users," Creutz points out.

Facebook is home to some 500 million users as of this month, but while the social network continues to grow, tighter control over its virality channels (to avoid what's perceived as "spamming" users with game notifications) have begun to impact social game developers. The top Facebook game company, Zynga, achieved superstar status with FarmVille, but just from March 2009 to July of this year, that title has plummeted from its peak of 85 million monthly active users to 61.6 million -- a loss of more users than most social gaming companies outside the top three have across their entire portfolios.

However, Zynga's newer game, FrontierVille, is seeing explosive growth, pulling 7.4 million new users in two weeks as of July 8, suggesting that social game companies still can attract users if they replace familiar properties with new trends on a regular basis -- something that to Creutz might be a harbinger of another negative trend.

"We believe the dynamics of the social gaming space are becoming increasingly commoditized and fad-based, and attracting gamers could become an exercise in increasingly aggressive marketing budgets, impacting the economics of the social gaming model," warns the analyst.

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Mark Morrison
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Funny how Creutz questions these these deals without explaining why they won't pan out specifically. Using "fad" as an excuse is not very enlightening. Creutz questioned EA's acq. of Playfish back in 2009:

EA is now the only top performing console publisher on the top 10 Facebooks Apps and Development leader boards, daily.

Maybe this Disney acqusition wasn't for content or talent. Maybe it was just a strategic acquisition like Club Penguin was, to widen possible consumer base and boost media portfolio.

Adam Miller
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The deal doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me because the whole gist of casual gaming is appealing to non-hardcore gamers. This means that a Disney branded FarmVille game (or what have you) could easily attract massive audiences internationally, especially considering the popularity of Disney fashions and merchandise.

So, instead of forking over half a billion, why not hire a competent in-house team? What, there aren't enough free agents/miserable employees in the game industry? Beyond Zynga, I just don't see how any one casual/social games company is worth buying.

Jamie Mann
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I think Creutz has a point: the general trend for facebook games has been downwards, thanks to a combination of ennui in existing players, tighter spamming controls and the fact that in some countries (e.g. the US), the facebook population is reaching saturation level, so there's fewer potential new recruits.

On the other hand, Disney has some strong IP - and by owning the game company, they also get to pull in all the revenue. Throw in the fact that Playdom has around 40 million existing users (i.e. they have both a proven, established infrastructure, a development/support team and a large audience ready to be fed Disney marketing) and the deal starts to make more sense. Whether or not it makes 565 million dollars worth of sense is another matter...

mark donovan
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@Adam Miller

1)The reason why these games become so popular so fast is because Zynga, Playdom, et al can market their games across an established player network. Disney obviously benefits from the 40 mil + monthly gamers already playing Playdom's games. If they try to build out their own platform they're rolling the dice spending tens of millions (Playdom raised 76 mil and I'm assuming Disney could not do it for less and likely would have to spend more) building a game that they will have to market hard to drive traffic to.

2) Time to market and complexity - it's not as easy as it sounds to build a development studio and bring a game with the functionality of Playdom or Zynga's top titles to market. They have a fully functioning virtual economy - that stuff takes time and is complex to build. Again, if you try to do it from scratch you're rolling the dice on being successful and likely taking years to get to market in a company the size of Disney.

3) Established talent - Playdom has a lot of development studios with the ability to localize games. For Disney this is likely more about getting a studio to pump out games based on their popular properties for a) advertising to stay top of mind and relevant to a new generation of consumers and b) a new revenue generating asset that will add to the bottom line with relatively low operating costs