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.