Mobile Games

Netmarble Games: Stock Price Target 33% Below IPO Based On App Store Data

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

On May 11, 2017, Netmarble Games had an IPO on the Korea KOSPI stock exchange.

Due to an enthusiastic demand by Korean, International, and Sovereign funds, the company was able to price the IPO at the high end range of 157,000 Korean won (KRW) / share, or approximately $138 USD / share based on an exchange rate of .00088 KRW / USD.

Within the first hour of trading, individual retail investors pushed the price up to 171,500 KRW. The stock closed the day at 162,000 KRW, making the funds, the underwriters, the company and its CEO Bang Jun-hyuk very happy.

Three days before trading began analyst Moon Ji-hyun with the Korean brokerage house of Mirae Asset Daewoo predicted that the company would exceed expectations for YoY revenue and profit doubling.  She gave the stock a price target of 200,000 KRW, or a 27% increase from the IPO price.  

Most other financial analysts and business reporters wrote positively about the company and its IPO.

We alone differed.  (Disclosure: we have never held a position in the stock and do not intend to initiate one at anytime.  We have not received any remuneration for our articles on Netmarble.)

Three weeks before the IPO, on April 18, 2017 we analysed the offering and concluded that IPO was “priced for perfection” meaning that the expectation of $1+ Billion USD in annual revenue from its newly released game Lineage 2: Revolution (L2R) was already built into the IPO price.

Below is a spreadsheet that summarized our prior analysis:

During the first two weeks post-IPO, three “imperfections”  cropped up and the stock fell 9.6% from its IPO price to close at 142,000 KRW on Friday, May 26, 2017.  

First, on the first day of trading on May 12th, a report surfaced that the Korean gaming authorities would not let minors play L2R until the company reduced the use of gambling (“gatcha”) mechanisms.

Second,  three days later on May 15th it was reported that NCSoft, a rival Korean game company that created and owned the Lineage IP,  planned a June 2017 release of a new game based on the same IP as Netmarble’s L2R.  The fear was that NCSoft’s new game would draw users away from Netmarble’ s L2R.

Finally, a week later on May 17th, the stock suffered a one day slide of 7.8% from 157,000 KRW to 142,000 KRW despite booking a 111% and 172% YoY increases in sales and profit, respectively, as revealed in its 1Q17 earnings report.  

The negative reaction by the stock market to these seemingly stellar financials is exactly what we predicted a month ago when we said that Netmarble’s IPO was priced for perfection at 157,000 KRW.  

The market has confirmed our conclusion that Netmarble must book YoY revenue increases that EXCEED 111% if the stock is to move significantly past the IPO price.

Below we will present updated app store data confirming our prior prediction that the annualized revenue run rate (ARR) of Lineage 2: Revolution has fallen significantly since its late December 2016 release.  

While still an impressive hit, L2R’s revenue in Korea for 2017 will not be $1+ Billion, but more like $600 MIllion.  

We predict that the release of Netmarble’s 2Q17 financials, which should happen around August 17th, will confirm a less than doubling of YoY revenue.  We predict that market will react negatively to that reality-check and the stock should be settle in around 105,000 KRW or 33% below the IPO price.  

In the meantime, expect business reporters and financial analysts to continue to issue positive forward looking statements regarding the release of L2R in Japan and China, TV spots featuring Korean teen idols promoting L2R, new game releases in Korea, and hints of acquisitions in the USA and Europe.

Expect a number of one day pops in the stock following such announcements followed by a continued downward drift.

For example, on Monday May 29th, the stock popped 3.5% late in the session based on a favorable report by Lee Min-a, an analyst with KTB Investments and Securities.  She downplayed the possible negative effects of the ban on playing L2R by minors and the NCSoft’s impending release of a game with similar IP.   

The analyst reiterated a “buy” recommendation with a price target of 157,000 KRW, exactly the same as what funds paid for the IPO. To our way of thinking,  this would be troubling to IPO investors.

This price target implies that the underwriters allowed the IPO to be price so high that brokerage analysts now admit that they see NO UPSIDE POTENTIAL for early investors for the remainder of 2017.   

We suggest that you ignore all forward-looking statements coming from business writers and brokerage house financial analysts.    Instead we recommend you follow real revenue trends in L2R and other Netmarble games that are freely available from such analytics companies as App Annie.  

Also check around the 27th of each month to see if L2R is still among SuperData’s Top 10 global revenue ranking companies. The month that L2R falls out of the SuperData’s Top 10 will be strong confirmation of our negative prediction that the stock is headed toward 105,000 KRW.

 

App Store Evidence of Fading Revenue for Lineage 2: Revolution

On December 13, 2016 Netmarble launched a mobile role-playing game called Lineage ll: Revolution  (L2R) based on licensed IP from NCSoft’s legendary PC game Lineage. According to app analytics company App Annie, the game immediately rose to #1 on the S. Korean iOS Apple revenue rank charts and has remain so to this day with the exception of two days in late May.

Just because L2R has remained ranked #1 on the S. Korean charts for the past four months, and likely will continue to do so for months, it is still possible that ARR has declined by $100s of Millions since release.

This is because there is a severe power function relation in the mobile game industry between ARR and revenue rank. Typically, at the top of the USA charts, there can be a $600 Million difference between the #1 and #2 ranked game, say $2.2 Billion ARR for #1 and $1.6 Billion ARR for #2.

For example, below is a power function we derived in an earlier paper on the Netmarble IPO for top ranked games on USA iOS app store.

 

 

For the S. Korean chart now, it is conceivable that the gap between #1 ranked L2R and the #2 ranked Everybody’s Marble, also by Netmarble published on Kakao, could be $700 Million or more.

In January 2017, Netmarble told the Korean press L2R generated $176.6 Million in revenue between mid-December 2016 and mid-January 2017. That translates into $2+ Billion ARR.

Obviously, a $2 Billion ARR is not sustainable for the full year of 2017. This is because, TOTAL Korean game revenue (mobile + console + PC) was only $4 Billion in 2016, according to Newzoo.

Netmarble has not made any official full year forecasts for L2R nor for the company as a whole. We do know that official 2016 revenue for the total company was $1.34 Billion.

In March 2017 analysts covering the company told The Korea Times  that they expect revenue to double to $2.7 Billion, largely based on the early success of L2R.  Assuming organic growth of around 25%, the implied 2017 forecast for L2R is around $1 Billion.

We present two pieces of evidence that even a $1 Billion in total revenue for 2017 is unlikely.

The first piece of evidence is an App Annie trend chart showing L2R download rank. Note that while L2R was ranked #1 in downloads for the first month since release, downloads have steadily dropped below #40 by late May 2017.  

It is doubtful this drop off was caused by a drop off in advertising by Netmarble.  It is more likely due to a lack of strong word-of-mouth by early players that this is a great game.

The other piece of evidence of a drop off in ARR comes from a monthly summary report put out by SuperData listing the top grossing mobile games globally for that month.  

For February 2017, SuperData reported L2R was the top grossing game globally.  But, for March, it reported that L2R dropped to #10. In April, it moved up slightly to #9 (See below).  

 

L2R is no longer $2+ Million USD ARR game of January 2017 nor the $1+ Million USD ARR game of February 2017.  More likely, its March and April ARR is in the range $600 Milion USD.

 

Valuing Netmarble Based on Realistic Expectations for L2R

At the IPO price of 157,000 KRW or $138 USD, the company was valued at $11.7 Billion USD.

Dividing that valuation by analysts forecasts for 2017 revenue of $2.7 Billion,  we arrive at valuation of 4.3 time forward ARR.  This ratio enables comparisons with  market-derived valuation ratios of publicly-held companies. (see below)

For example, in another paper of ours on the Netmarble IPO,  we derived a Valuation ratio for Com2uS of 2.61.  Com2uS is a Korean-based mobile game company listed on KOSPI exchange.   Com2uS is much better known than Netmarble due to its global hit mobile game Summoners War.  

While Com2uS is growing slower than Netmarble, its future sales is more predictable. Based on this comparison, we concluded that Netmarble’s IPO was overpriced by 26%.

In the spreadsheet below,  we also break down Netmarble’s 2017 overall revenue growth forecast into estimates of organic growth versus new sales from L2R — which we peg at $1 Billion.

 The final spreadsheet presents “what if?” analysis of Netmarble’s value and stock price if L2R’s 2017 revenue is $600 Million instead of $1 Billion.

Note that when revenue forecasts are significantly cut back, there is usually a corresponding compression in valuation ratios.  So, we built into our “what if?” analysis a compression of Netmarble’s valuation ratio from 4.3 to 3.5 times forward ARR.  

We predict that the release of Netmarble’s 2Q17 financials, which should happen around August 17th, will confirm a less than doubling of YoY revenue.  We predict that market will react negatively to that reality-check and the stock should settle in around 105,000 KRW or 33% below the IPO price.  

Netmarble Games IPO: A Fast Fade for Lineage 2?

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

Introduction

Netmarble is the largest mobile game publisher in South Korea.

The company has just secured investor commitments to buy 16.9 Million shares worth $2.3 Billion in a May 2017 IPO on the Korea KOSPI stock exchange.  

This IPO would value the company at $11 Billion based on investor demand at the high end of the offer range of $138 USD / share (or 157,000 Korean Won / share)

This is a very big deal. It would be the largest IPO on the Korean exchange since 2010 and second largest tech IPO in the world in the last two years after Snap and ahead of Line.

We will show in detail below that this is a highly speculative IPO, even for mobile game companies who are often dismissed by investors as being one hit wonders.

This IPO is unlike the disappointing mobile game IPOs of King Digital Entertainment in 2014 and Zynga in 2011 where both companies had enough audited numbers in their S-1s to suggest that their best days were behind them.

On the contrary, Netmarble’s best days are ahead of them.  But, investors are insane to give this company such a lofty valuation based entirely on unaudited revenue numbers of a single new game launched only four months ago.

We will present evidence hinting that early annualized revenue run rates (ARR) for the game have slipped noticeably in March 2017 — the third month since launch.  We predict that once investors realize this, the stock should drop 30+% from its expected IPO price.

Evidence of a Drop-off in ARR

On December 13, 2016 Netmarble launched a mobile role-playing game called Lineage ll: Revolution  (L2R) based on licensed IP from NCSoft’s legendary PC game Lineage. According to app analytics company App Annie, the game immediately rose to #1 on the S. Korean iOS Apple revenue rank charts and has remain so to this day.

 

 Just because L2R has remained ranked #1 on the S. Korean charts for the past four months, and likely will continue to do so for months, it is still possible that ARR has declined by $100s of Millions since release.

This is because there is a severe power function relation in the mobile game industry between ARR and revenue rank. Typically, at the top of the USA charts, there can be a $600 Million ARR difference between the #1 and #2 ranked game, say $2.2 Billion ARR for #1 and $1.6 Billion ARR for #2.

For example, below is a power function we derived in an earlier paper on the Netmarble IPO for top ranked games on USA iOS app store.

For the S. Korean chart now, it is conceivable that the gap between #1 ranked L2R and the #2 ranked Everybody’s Marble, also by Netmarble published on Kakao, could be $700 Million or more.

In January 2017, Netmarble told the Korean press L2R generated $176.6 Million in revenue between mid-December 2016 and mid-January 2017. That translates into $2+ Billion ARR.

Obviously, a $2 Billion ARR is not sustainable for the full year of 2017. This is because TOTAL Korean game revenue (mobile + console + PC) was only $4 Billion in 2016, according to Newzoo.

Netmarble has not made any official full year forecasts for L2R nor for the company as a whole. We do know that official 2016 revenue for the total company was $1.34 Billion.

In March 2017 analysts covering the company told The Korea Times  that they expect revenue to double to $2.7 Billion, largely based on the early success of L2R.  Assuming organic growth of around 25%, this implies that the 2017 forecast for L2R would be around $1 Billion.

We present two pieces of evidence that even a $1 Billion in total revenue for 2017 is unlikely.

The first piece of evidence is an App Annie trend chart showing L2R download rank. Note that while L2R was ranked #1 in downloads for the first month since release, downloads have steadily dropped below #30 by late March 2017.  

It is doubtful this drop off was caused by a drop off in advertising by Netmarble.  It is more likely due to a lack of strong word-of-mouth by early players that this is a great game.

The other piece of evidence of a drop off in ARR comes from a monthly summary report put out by SuperData listing the top grossing mobile games globally for that month.  

For February 2017, SuperData reported L2R was the top grossing game globally.  But, for March, it reported that L2R dropped to #10 (See below)

 

 

Valuing Netmarble Based on Realistic Expectations for L2R

As we stated earlier, Netmarble’s IPO is scheduled for May 2017.  Investors have already committed to buying 16.9 Million shares at the top end of the offering range of $138 USD / share or 157,000 Korean won / share.

This values the company at $11.7 Billion.  Dividing that valuation by analysts forecasts for 2017 revenue of $2.7 Billion,  we arrive at valuation of 4.3 time forward ARR.  This ratio enables comparisons with  market-derived valuation ratios of publicly-held companies. 

For example, in another paper of ours on the Netmarble IPO,  we derived a valuation ratio for Com2uS of 2.61.  Com2uS is a Korean-based mobile game company listed on KOSPI exchange.   Com2uS is much better known than Netmarble due to its global hit mobile game Summoners War.  

While Com2uS is growing slower than Netmarble, its future sales are more predictable. Based on this comparison, we concluded that Netmarble’s IPO was overpriced by 26%.

In the spreadsheet below,  we also break down Netmarble’s 2017 overall revenue growth forecast into estimates of organic growth versus new sales from L2R — which we peg at $1 Billion.

 

 The final spreadsheet presents “what if?” analysis of Netmarble’s value and stock price  if more solid evidence starts showing up indicating that L2R’s 2017 ARR will be closer to $600 Million than $1 Billion.

Note that when revenue forecasts are significantly cut back, there is usually a corresponding compression in valuation ratios.  So, we built into our “what if?” analysis a compression of Netmarble’s valuation ratio from 4.3 to 3.5 times forward ARR.  

Official sales figures will start coming from Netmarble a month or so after the end of its 2Q17 quarter in June 2017.  We expect management to guide 2017 revenue well short of initial forecasts of $2.7 Billion due to L2R’s ARR well below $1 Billion.

The stock should fall well below IPO prices.  We predict a decline on the order of 33% by July or August 2017.

Netmarble IPO: How Greed Destroyed Its Kabam Acquisition

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

Netmarble is the ninth largest mobile app game publisher in the world and the largest in South Korea. In a month, the company is set to raise $2.3 Billion via an IPO on the KOSPI Korean stock exchange.

If successful, the company will be valued at $11.7 Billion and catapult it to the level of Supercell and MZ (formerly Machine Zone) as one of the top 3 most highly valued mobile game companies in the world.

Our analysis of this IPO, indicated that expectations for revenue doubling in 2017 has been fully priced into the IPO price of 157,000 Korean Won  / share or  $138 USD / share (based on conversion of .00088 USD / Won).  We recommended staying away from the IPO, and look for an entry point 36% lower, or around $86 / share USD.  

While doing research on Netmarble, we began to see that the aggressive pricing of its IPO was not the only instance of what we considered to be a pattern of greed as defined by making choices favoring short term gain at the expense of long term gain.

For one, Netmarble had a history of overworking its Korean workers.  So much so that employees pulling “all nighters” before every game patch started calling its highrise HQ in Seoul  “the lighthouse”.  

As Netmarble’s IPO date grew nearer and investor scrutiny intensified, the company changed its work hours policies, saying it would ban “all nighters” and weekend work.

The purpose of this paper is to explore in detail another instance of Netmarble greed:  how it has managed a recent $710 Million acquisition of the Vancouver studio of the fallen USA mobile game unicorn Kabam.

Netmarble has repeatedly stated that its long term growth strategy hinges on growth outside S. Korea.  This includes localizing its Korean hit game Lineage II: Revolution for the Chinese market. It also includes acquisitions of studios in the West with games generating $100+ Million in annualized revenue (ARR)  like Kabam’s Marvel: Contest of Champions (MCOC).

Our interest in Netmarble stems from a long running interest in Kabam.  We have followed the the ups and (mostly) downs of Kabam for the last three years, focusing mostly on valuations based on App Annie app store revenue rank trends. Below is a list of our articles chronicling the fall of Kabam and its causes.  They are available on our blog GloMo Investing:

On October 18, 2016, VentureBeat reported that an unidentified company had made an $800 million offer for Kabam’s Vancouver studio.  That studio had been responsible for the only game keeping Kabam alive at the time:  Marvel: Contest of Champions (MCOC).  

The Vancouver studio also was valued for the game engine behind MCOC and for the hit potential of another game in final development based on Transformer IP licensed from Hasbro. At the time, MCOC was a #9 revenue ranked game with our estimated global annualized revenue run rate (ARR) of $250 Million. We noted at the time that the bid seemed right for a studio + hit game + game engine as long as the two-year running MCOC could sustain a $250 Million ARR.

On December 19, 2016, it was announced that Netmarble was the successful bidder. The bid was later officially pegged at $710 Million based on Netmarble’s IPO filings in late March 2017.

Throughout 2016,  Netmarble talked about an IPO.  It played up its plans to use  the proceeds from the IPO  to buy USA-based companies knowing that the mobile game market in the USA was six times that of S. Korea.  It was especially important for Netmarble to demonstrate its acquisition prowess before its IPO, given that it had narrowly lost a bid for the social casino game company Playtika in June 2016.

What follows is a closer look at the way Netmarble has managed two major software releases since it closed the deal for the Vancouver studio just two months ago. It is evidence of a kind a greed that favors short term monetization over long term player engagement.

The first instance of a disastrous release — the now infamous MCOC Patch 12.0 — was released on March 1, 2017 just one week after Netmarble closed the acquisition on February 23, 2017.  The other was the design and release schedule of Transformers: Forged to Fight (Transformers).  

Even though development of both started before Netmarble took over, the final releases were made on their watch. Netmarble could have stopped these releases, mandated more player friendly designs that would sustain engagement even if that meant less revenue in the short run.  But they did not.

Using the AppAnnie iOS USA app store revenue rank trend line below, we will show the context and likely rationale for MCOC Patch 12.0.  

MCOC was first released 2 ½ years earlier in December 2014.  Five month later in May 2015 the game cracked the Top 10 revenue rank (first red line).

It remained a consistent Top 8-10 revenue rank for a solid year until July 2016 (second red line) when it started a slow fade down to a Top 10-15 for the second half of 2016.  Patch 12.0 went live on March 1st (third red line).  

Player criticism was instantaneous led by a YouTube video entitled “Patch 12.0 is Terrible” by MCOC Youtube channel celebrity Seatin Man of Legends. It quickly spread.    On March 6th, the MCOC development team issued an official apology, said it heard the criticisms, and would issue a fix shortly. Note that on the day of the apology (fourth red line), MCOC broke below #20 first time in two years.

Here is a more detailed App Annie chart for the last year that shows MCOC fade starting in mid-2016:

MCOC Fade from Top 8-10 To Top 10-15

 

You might think that a slight fade from a consistent Top 8-10 revenue rank game to a Top 10-15 game is insignificant. But,  in the mobile game world, there is a strong power function relation between revenue dollars and revenue rank.  

At this high end of the mobile game power function a single digit swing in revenue rank translates into a $20 Million to $40 Million swing in ARR. Using our long-standing metric of 2.5 times ARR for valuing mobile game companies or studios + game engines, a one digit swing in rank translates into a $50 Million to $100 Million swing in valuation.

Below is our reconstruction of global annualized revenue of top ranking games currently on the iOS Apple app store charts as a function of rank. The iOS USA numbers are from Think Gaming,  which we believe are algorithmically derived and smoothed out rather than actual tallies.  

Over the years, we have used this simple rule of thumb to derive global revenue of top ranking games on Apple iOS USA — companies that generally derive the bulk of their revenue in the USA as opposed to Asia or Europe. 

The global mobile game revenue for top ranking USA iOS games can be divided into three equal segments: iOS USA,  Android USA,  and Rest of World.  Thus, global ARR = 3 * iOS USA.

 

Notice that the average ARR of Top 8-10 game is $242 Million whereas the average ARR of a Top 10-15 game is $156 Million, about $100 Million less in revenue and $250 Million less in value based on our 2.5 valuation multiple.

Obviously Kabam was acutely aware of MCOC’s fade and its implications for the value of the Vancouver studio. Also, Netmarble must of been aware when it turned its eye to Kabam after its June 2016 failed bid for Playtika.

Given the extent of the changes involved in Patch 12.0, the development team must have began work about two months after the start of the fade, say around August 2016. As Kabam and Netmarble were closing in on a deal, Kabam must have discussed Patch 12.0 with Netmarble including design choices based a trade-off between increases in average revenue per paying user (ARPPU) and the likelihood of player defection.

 Kabam may even have been savvy enough to prepare several versions of Patch 12.0 with different expected ARPPU  knowing that it would be Netmarble who would make the final decision once the deal closed. Normally, before a major update to a long running game, it is customary for a development team to do two things:

  1. invite key players to test the beta version and solicit feedback;
  2. present a detailed rationale for each change on official forums on the day of the release.

Netmarble did neither.  On March 1st, the final version of Patch 12.0 was released.

There was an immediate shock and outrage by hard core players as evidenced by their vents on YouTube, Facebook, Reddit, various game blogs, and official Kabam hosted forums. Among long running hard core games, the level and breadth of MCOC player outrage was unpresented.

 When we googled “player revolt” plus game name, we could find evidence only of one revolt by players of  MZ’s Game of War: Fire Age.   There have been no noticeable online revolts by players of Supercell’s hit games — Clash of Clans or Clash Royale — nor of players of MZ’s other hit game Mobile Strike.

Based on our reading of these criticisms, we believe that final version of Patch 12.0 was focused to the extreme on increasing ARPPU without giving much weight to player outrage and defection.

First, beyond the questions of objective, there was a major screw-up of core gameplay mechanics that made block and parry unplayable.  

Then, there was what we call widespread “devaluations” of player assets  designed to increase ARPPU.

 It included diminishing the fighting power (“nerfing”) of the most popular characters, or Champions, and providing incentives to buy unpopular Champions by increasing their power (“buffing”).  

Another devaluation occurred by making battle losses more costly in terms of power loss, thereby increasing regeneration costs. Finally, there was fundamental change in the scoring system with no rationale given.  But it appeared to the most experienced players that this change was designed to increase ARPPU.  

Player outrage and talk of organized revolt ended abruptly on March 6th when the company officially apologized and promised rollbacks which did occur with Patch 12.0.1 on March 10th.

In the end, Patch 12.0 and subsequent roll-back likely did nothing to reverse the fade of MCOC.  But it caused irreversible loss in trust by long term players.  Players can never again be sure that accumulated investments made in MCOC won’t be subject to another Patch 12.0 type devaluation. MCOC will never again be a consistent Top 8-10 game.  

Netmarble will likely hold off from making ANY major changes in the next six months to MCOC, leading to player ennui and defection to more engaging games.

Now on the the other instance where Netmarble’s greed led to decisions which caused a new game release by the Vancouver studio to be a bust. Kabam’s Vancouver studio was especially valuable to any acquirer because it had a proprietary  “game engine” called “Fuse & Sparx” thought to be capable of churning out a series of re-skinned MCOC hits.

First up was a game with MCOC-like game mechanics based on Transformers IP licensed from Hasbro called Transformers: Forged to Fight. (Transformers) Below is the countdown to the global launch of the game:

Notice that there was only a two month soft-launch before global release.  Based on App Annie charts, the game struggled in soft-launch and never cracked the Top #100 with any consistency.  

Normally,  a company would add a couple more months of tweaking before making a decision to launch officially or can the game.   Given Netmarble’s May 2017 IPO date, we think that they rushed released a deeply flawed Transformer game causing it irreparable damage as the early word was that it was buggy, slow to load, and freezes.

Even if the game’s bugs could be cleaned up, early players of the game reported that it is “too complex to play”  and there is “kitchen sink” approach to development with a mashup of game genres and a mind-numbing complexity to scorekeeping and purchasing.  

To us, this suggests that the priorities were early monetization over long term player engagement. Below is the revenue rank trend of the game:

 

Our four years of reading App Annie charts suggests that there are no more “late bloomers” in the mobile game world. If a newly released game does not crack the top 50 in the first few days, it will never crack the Top 10. The Transformer game is a major bust for Netmarble.

But worse, it raises doubts about the hit making ability of  Vancouver’s game engine “Fuse and Sparx.”  Could the success of MCOC be due more to the original team that developed it, long since gone,  and not its game engine nor the current team?

The bust of the Transformer game and the fiasco of MCOC Patch 12.0 raises serious doubts about Netmarble’s ability to manage future acquisitions in the West.  

Will Netmarble’s greed once again force newly acquired companies in the USA to release their own Patch 12.0?   

Will Netmarble’s greed force acquired companies in the USA to junk up games similar to what happened with Transformers: Forged to Fight?

Netmarble’s IPO will give the company  $2.4 Billion to make acquisitions of USA-based companies with current Top 20 hits.  This would include the privately-held companies Pocket Gems, Product Madness, and Jam City, a company already with a $100 Million Netmarble investment.

It would also include the publicly-held company Glu Mobile and the Com2uS, a company listed on the Korean exchange, but with most of its revenue coming from its global hit Summoners War.  

Unless Netmarble can change its focus to long term player engagement over short term monetization boosts, we think that they will destroy future acquisitions just like they destroyed Kabam’s Vancouver studio in two short months.

Netmarble IPO: Priced for Perfection

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

Netmarble is the ninth largest mobile app game publisher in the world and the largest in South Korea.

The company is seeking to sell 17 million shares on the Korean KOSPI stock exchange in early May garnering proceeds of between $1.8 Billion and $2.4 Billion USD (all USD figures converted from Korean Won at .00088 USD / Won). Roughly half will be used for new acquisitions and half will be used to retire debt.

This is a big deal IPO by both Korean and USA standards.

It represents the largest IPO in S. Korea in 7 years. It would rank as the one of the largest tech IPO globally in last 2 years.

In January 2017, Netmarble launched a mobile role-playing game called Lineage ll: Revolution based on licensed IP from NCSoft’s legendary PC game Lineage. According to app analytics company App Annie, the game immediately rose to #1 on the S. Korean revenue rank charts.

Netmarble told the Korean press that the game generated $176.6 Million in revenue in the first month. That translates into an annualized revenue run rate [ARR] of $2+ Billion.

Obviously, that run rate is not sustainable. But, even if the game managed to produce $1+ Billion in revenue during 2017, it would place Netmarble in the rarefied company of Niantic, Supercell and MZ (formerly Machine Zone) as the only companies that released a $1+ Billion Dollar game in the last 2 years.

The IPO will be watched closely by the mobile game industry given the poor post-IPO performances of King Digital Entertainment in 2014 and Zynga in 2011.

A case could be made that these IPOs were anomalies and not a fair test of how a mobile game stock is capable of performing. Both Zynga and King Digital had enough numbers in their S-1s to suggest that their best days were behind them at the time of their IPOs.

However, there is absolutely no question that Netmarble’s best days are ahead of it. There is no question that its revenues and profits will soar in 2017 if Lineage II manages to sustain an ARR greater than $1+ Billion.

Lineage II is not all that Netmarble has going for it in 2017. In February 2017, the company completed a $700+ Million acquisition of the Vancouver studio of the USA mobile game company Kabam.

If managed properly (questionable as we will argue below), Netmarble could generate a fresh $100 to $300 Million in revenue from two Kabam game. One is Marvel: Contest of Champions which has been a long running Top 15 revenue rank game in the USA. The other is the recently released game Transformers: Forged to Fight based on IP licensed from Hasbro.

No question, 2017 will be a spectacular year for Netmarble. The Korea Times has reported that analysts there expect Netmarble’s forward 2017 revenue to be around $ 2.7 Billion, a whopping 107% YoY increase. This is a far cry from Zynga’s and King’s anemic post-IPO YoY revenue growth rates of 12% and 20%, respectively.

The question is has all of this been priced into Netmarble’s IPO price and valuation?

Our analysis will show that expectations for revenue doubling in 2017 has been fully priced into the IPO. Netmarble’s IPO is priced for perfection.

Furthermore, there is a pattern of greed on the part of Netmarble’s management that has not served it well. It includes:

While Netmarble’s short term prospects are tied to the performance of Lineage II in Korea, its long term prospects are tied to success in the West.

The company has announced that it intends to localize and release the Lineage game in China but those prospects are uncertain, even with Tencent (TCEHY) as a significant minority stockholder.

The uncertainty is result of China’s recent freeze on licensing new games from Korean companies due to geopolitical tensions between the two countries.

In our opinion, Netmarble’s greedy handling of the Kabam games causes us to believe that Netmarble’s current and future acquisitions will underperform due to employee and player defections.

We start with a summary of the IPO — the expected price range, and the expected post-IPO valuation based on those prices.

The next spreadsheet is our valuation of Netmarble as a multiple of 2017 forward sales. We have been unable to find any official company forward looking revenue statement. If there is one in the Korean version of their S-1, we have found no reference to it by the Korean financial press.

Lacking official numbers, we use $2.7 Billion for Netmarble 2017 forward sales, a number reported by The Korea Times that analysts there expect.

Any lesser number would only increase our estimated price / forward sales ratio (P/S), which is already high. Any greater number would be incredulous as Newzoo has reported that TOTAL Korean game revenue (mobile + console + PC) was only $4 Billion in 2016.

Moreover, given the $4 Billion Newzoo figure, it seem incredulous that there would be enough demand in Korea to sustain any single mobile game at an $1+ Billion ARR.

The next spreadsheet is a comparison of the valuation / forward sales (P/S) ratios of Netmarble — 3.3 — with Com2uS — 2.61.

Com2uS is a Korean-based mobile game company listed on the Korean KOSPI exchange. Gamevil, a smaller publicly-held Korean game company, holds controlling interest in Com2uS.

Com2uS is much better known in the USA than Netmarble due to its global hit mobile game Summoners War. The game was released in the USA in June 2014 and has maintained a remarkably consistent Top 20 revenue rank in the USA for the last two years.

Based on this comparison, we believe that Netmarble’s IPO is overpriced by 26% at its announced price range of $106 to $138 USD or 121,000 to 157,000 Korean Won.

We believe that it would be a buy only around $84 USD or 95,250 Won.

You might argue that Netmarble’s upside potential is higher than Com2uS. That is true. But, we are not talking about financials, but stock prices whose movement is based on perceived and actualized performance that has not already been built into the current prices.

Netmarble is a buy at the announced IPO range if you believe that it will exceed an expected 107% in revenue growth this year. We think not.

Netmarble is a buy if you think it can successfully localize and release the Lineage II game in China in late 2017 or 2018. We say wait a half year before you invest to get a better feel for geopolitics between S. Korea and China.

Finally, Netmarble may be a buy if you believe that the newly released Transformer: Forged to Fight game will become a Top 8-10 hit like its cousin Marvel: Contest of Champions. We think not.

Our four years of reading App Annie charts suggests that there are no more “late bloomers” in the mobile game world. If a newly released game does not crack the top 50 in the first few days, it will never crack the Top 10.

Our reading of the App Annie chart says that the Transformers game is a bust.

(Source: App Annie)

While the Transformer game began development under Kabam, the final architecture and release schedule came under Netmarble’s watch. Both reflect a greediness that we believe has resulted in its quick bust.

The game was rushed into global release on April 5th after a relatively short two month soft-launch shakedown in Singapore and Canada.

Experienced early players of the game report that it is “too complex to play” and there is “kitchen sink” approach to development with a mashup of game genres and a mind-numbing complexity to scorekeeping and purchasing. To us, this suggests that the priorities are early monetization over long term player engagement.

In sum, Netmarble in not a buy at the announced IPO price range. Wait at least six month and evaluate its performance then.

A Unicorn Startup’s Kiss of Death: Kabam Field

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

The year 2016 will be remembered as a year when titillating stories came out about Unicorn excesses — Dropbox’s Chrome Panda sculpture, Hampton Creek’s covert buy-backs of Just Mayo inventory, and Zenefits’ sex in the stairwell.

This is a story about Kabam, another fallen Unicorn, and its excesses. More than just descriptive, we analyze its history to locate the source of its downfall in the emergence of a “talk the talk” culture championed by hired professional managers who focused Kabam on short-term revenue goals and a quick IPO.

We even pinpoint a moment in time when Kabam’s fortunes first turned for the worse — a late December 2013 acquisition of the naming rights to the University of California at Berkeley (Cal or UCB) football field for $18 Million paid over 15 years.

In a March 2014 article, we first predicted that this conceit would be viewed in hindsight as Kabam’s “kiss of death” — a sign foreshadowing bad things about to happen. Sure enough, two and a half years later, the once high flying Kabam now is in the process of being dismantled and sold off.

Kabam’s most valuable asset, its Vancouver studio, has just been sold to the Korean gaming company Netmarble for a reported $800 Million. After this deal closes in 1Q17, the company has announced that the rest of the company’s remaining studios will be offered for sale as acqui-hires. Nothing has been said about the future of Kabam’s three co-founders, but their days as Unicorn executives are over.

Also, nothing has been said yet as to the disposition of the naming rights for the football field. While the future name of Cal’s football field might have low priority for those in charge of disposing of Kabam’s assets, its has enormous social-psychological value to the tens of thousands of people who care passionately about the Cal and its football team.

Where Did Kabam Go Wrong?

Kabam was founded in 2006 by Cal alumni Kevin Chou, Michael Li, and Holly Liu. The company had early success developing mobile “freemium” games based on movie IP licensed from major studios.

But, beginning in 2013. Kabam stopped making visionary choices. In our opinion, this was due to the emergence of a the “talk the talk” culture beginning with the hiring of Steve Swasey from Netflix to be head of Corporate Communications.

In January 2016, Swasey was hired away from Kabam by Lending Club CEO Renaud Laplanche, only to leave several months later after Laplanche was forced out by Lending Club’s Board when they discovered the CEO’s involvement in loan doctoring.

Our interest in Kabam began in 2013 when we discovered the app store analytics company App Annie. We saw a rich set of quantifiable financial data and developed a methodology for translating app store revenue ranking data into global annualized revenue dollars.

Based on comparable valuations for publicly-held companies as a multiple of their revenue, we were able to derive solid valuations for mobile game startups like Kabam and Machine Zone (now rebranded as MZ).

We were also able to make prescient buy recommendations in 2014 for two Japanese publicly-held pure play mobile game companies KLAB and Mixi.

While our focus has been on financial analysis of mobile game companies, in 2014, we starting writing about the differences between MZ and Kabam’s approach to publicity. Not only were the differences between the two extreme, but extreme for Unicorn startups in general.

MZ rarely talks to the press. Between 2013 and today, CEO Gabe Leydon has given two interviews a year and official MZ press releases happen about twice a year. There is no MZ employee chatter to be found on the internet other than anonymous comments on Glassdoor. This is shocking for a tech Unicorn, more extreme than the secretive Palantir, whose core competency is secrecy.

Kabam is the complete opposite of MZ when it comes to publicity. Forget about the number of times the tech press has interviewed CEO Kevin Chou or COO Kent Wakeford. Forget about the progressive “moussing” of CEO Chou’s hair that we have noted in photos and videos over the past five years.

What shocked us was the discovery that Kabam had a practice of issuing press releases every January between 2012 and 2015 giving specific numbers for revenue, headcount and cash in the bank: 2012 (for 2011), 2013 (for 2012), 2014 (for 2013), 2015 (for 2014).

This has allowed us to graph the rise and fall of Kabam’s revenue and headcount — a publicly available graphic that is rare for a tech startup.

The idea for this practice can directly be traced to Kabam’s former SVP of Corporate Communication Steve Swasey. Swasey was also key in pushing the naming rights deal with Cal.

In 2013, CEO Kevin Chou began talking to the press about timetables for an IPO. In early April of 2014, he announced publicly that revenue was forecasted to grow 80% or more and be in the range of $550 — $650 Million.

This public announcement of revenue projections — exceedingly rare for a Unicorn startup — solidified our view of Kabam as an extreme example of a “talk the talk” culture among Unicorn startups.

To achieve its announced short term revenue goals, Kabam started timing new releases to coincide with the releases of mega-hit movie sequels like Fast and Furious and the Hunger Games. The games had no long-term engagement value and “freemium” revenue plummeted within a few months after release. The result was a disastrous string of five failures and one success.

What Should Become of Kabam Field?

The height of Kabam’s “talk the talk” culture occurred in December 2013 when Kabam announced that it bought the naming rights to the Cal’s football field for $18 Million paid over 15 years. One can understand the desire of Kabam’s co-founders, all three Cal grads, to give back to their alma mater.

But, tech founders should wait years after their IPO to consider funding the construction of new university buildings named after them. For example, buildings names on the the Bay Area campus of Stanford and Berkeley include no less than Gates, Allen, Moore, Varian, Hewlett, Packard, and Wozniak.

Now that Kabam is in the process of being dismantled and sold off, the question is what should become of the naming rights to the Cal’s football field?

As we said in the introduction, the name of a university football field has high social-psychological value to the tens of thousands of people who care passionately about Cal and its football team.

The need for the Cal’s administration to address the field renaming issue could not have come at a worse time as they have just fired their football coach Sonny Dykes and Bloomberg has just written an article on university athletics finances naming Cal as the most debt-ridden program in the country. This is largely due to a $400 Million seismic retrofit of the football stadium after the discovery of a fault line running through it.

To begin cleansing Cal football of its recent bout of bad karma, one solution would be for Kabam and its Cal alumni co-founders to pay off the amount due the University from proceeds of the sale of other Kabam assets. The co-founders could also stipulate that the field renaming be crowd-sourced to University alumni and students.

But, one problem with this suggestion is that there is no obvious Cal sports hero or accomplished coach to rename the field after. Marshawn Lynch Field, Pappy Waldorf Field, Joe Kapp Field. All good, but none as obvious as Bryant-Denny Stadium at the University of Alabama or Amos Alonzo Stagg Field at the University of Chicago.

The other problem is that the naming rights to a Division I football field is an appreciating asset. For example, in September, 2015 the University of Washington received a whopping $4.1 Million per year over 10 year for “Alaska Airlines Field” at Husky Stadium. This is over three times Cal’s 2013 deal of $1.2 Million per year over 15 years for “Kabam Field” at California Memorial.

Given that the naming rights are far more valuable today than in 2013, and given the debt-ridden state of Cal’s athletic program, the University would surely prefer a solution involving a cancellation of the Kabam contract and the tendering of fresh bids from corporations.

The University can be expected to derail quietly any populist solution like a crowdsourcing of a new name. No, the University would much prefer Chase Field or PowerBar Field at $4 Million a year than any other solution.