Activision Blizzard revealed it has lost almost a million users for its "World of Warcraft" cash cow, dampening enthusiasm for its blockbuster "Call of Duty" franchise and wiping 3 percent off its share price.
The largest U.S. video games publisher raised its earnings outlook due to strong demand for its top shooter title, which began selling midnight Tuesday. But Wall Street fretted over the loss of subscriptions to the online fantasy game, one of its top profit generators.
Also on Tuesday, smaller rival Take-Two Interactive reported a net loss warning that top sports title "NBA 2K11" would take a sales hit because of labor strife that has delayed the start of the National Basketball Association season. Its shares dipped 2.5 percent.)
Activision Blizzard shares had gained initially after its improved earnings outlook, but reversed to fall more than 3 percent in after-hours trading. Its shares touched a 52-week high during the regular session on Tuesday.
Halfway through a results conference call, executives said it finished the quarter with 10.3 million active subscribers to World of Warcraft, the online role-playing game that generated more than a $1 billion in revenue last year.
That was down from 11.1 million subscribers at the end of the previous quarter.
"This trend is not good, especially when this business is their bedrock, their most profitable revenue-recurring business," said Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter.
Pachter added that this steep dropoff in regular-paying users makes the company more vulnerable to its main rival, Electronic Arts, which is releasing a highly anticipated online game based on "Star Wars" in December.
Activision said on the conference call it was working on developing new content to improve its game.
The company raised its earnings per share forecast for the year by 10 percent because it now expects the latest version of "Call of Duty" to perform better than it had planned. The game went on sale at midnight on Tuesday and stores such as GameStop and Wal-Mart stayed opened late so the game's fans could buy it early.
"It's on track to be the most successful 'Call of Duty' game ever," Chief Executive Bobby Kotick said in an interview. He added pre-orders of the game were higher than last year's.
The last edition of "Call of Duty" generated $1 billion in revenue in less than two months at the end of 2010, which set an industry record.
Analysts were surprised that Activision raised its earnings outlook on Tuesday so soon after its latest game came out.
"The Street wasn't expecting this but the game launched last night so Activision must have a pretty good feel for how things are going," said Sterne Agee analyst Arvind Bhatia.
Activision now expects earnings per share of 85 cents on revenue of $4.25 billion for 2011. This beat even the highest analyst estimate of 82 cents per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
It previously expected earnings per share of 77 cents on revenue of $4.05 billion.
To go along with the game, Activision is releasing "Call of Duty Elite," a new subscription service that costs $50 annually and offers extra online content, including apps for mobile devices.
But gamers who used the service on Tuesday faced technical problems, which Activision said was because more people signed up than expected, overwhelming the network. The company's CEO told Reuters on Tuesday the company would fix the problem shortly.
"We run 32 data centers around the world, so we're pretty good at addressing these issues," Kotick said.
Taking into account the deferral of digital revenue from online games, its third-quarter revenue fell 27 percent to $627 million. That beat analysts' expectations of $558.4 million.
The revenue drop was expected by analysts, since the company released a new version of the popular game, "StarCraft" in the same quarter a year ago.
Adjusted for revenue from online games, it posted earnings per share of 7 cents, which beat Wall Street's expectations of 2 cents per share.
Activision shares were trading about 45 cents lower at $13.48 in after-hours trading.
Take-Two's stock was down at $15.26 after-hours. CEO Strauss Zelnick told investors on its conference call that the lockout could hurt "NBA 2K11", but would not elaborate.
"We are seeing some impact from the lockout, and it's not positive," Zelnick said. In an interview, he declined to comment on how big the impact of sales would be.
Bhatia, the Sterne Agee analyst, expects 20 percent lower sales of the game without a basketball season.
(Reporting by Liana B. Baker, editing by Bernard Orr)