"Madden" Price Cuts Bad Omen for Electronic Arts

By Michael Comeau  AUG 18, 2010 9:20 AM

Now is time to sell the stock as the Xbox 360 edition of the video game has already been discounted to $49.99 from $59.99.

 


My Friday article, How Everyday Investors Can Benefit From Channel Checks,  discussed the merits of Amazon.com (AMZN) as an effective channel-checking tool and turned out to be incredibly well-timed.

That wasn’t due to any planning on my part.

It just turns out that on Monday, Research In Motion (RIMM) slid 5% on the revelation that Amazon priced the new BlackBerry Torch smartphone at just $99 -- another piece of evidence that RIM is feeling the heat from Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG).

It was widely assumed (including by me) that Amazon had actually instituted a $100 price cut on the Torch. As it turns out, there was no price cut -- Amazon’s initial pricing was $99, implying that nobody was looking for the Torch on Amazon in the first place.

I mean, somebody should have picked this up, right?

Since we’re on the topic of Amazon discounts, I’d like to turn your attention to a related story involving another struggling tech giant in need of a smash hit -- Electronic Arts (ERTS).

In the midst of all the BlackBerry hooplah, early discounts on EA’s flagship Madden NFL 11 have gone unnoticed by Wall Street over the past two days.

It's completely normal for Amazon to offer a modest discount on brand new video games, but less than a week after release, the Xbox 360 edition of Madden has been discounted to $49.99 from $59.99.

Now if we hit the rewind button back to 2009, Madden 10 wasn't discounted by Amazon until September 3, a full 20 days after release.

And it’s not just Amazon.

GameStop (GME), the nation’s largest video-game retailer, has also instituted a $10 price cut on the Xbox 360 and PS3 editions of Madden. This is worrisome because, in my experience, GameStop hasn't been as price-aggressive as Amazon.

If we rev up the time machine, we can see that 2009’s Madden 10 actually suffered a year-over-year sales decline in its initial month of sales, despite being the highest-rated Madden game in history at the time, as measured by GameRankings.com.

Madden 11
reviews thus far are very positive and actually average out above last year’s edition as I write this. However, if the price is being cut so soon, the marketplace is telling us that this critically acclaimed puppy is almost definitely moving less units than Madden 10, which again, didn’t do as well as Madden 09.

And even if we factor in the weak economy’s impact on video-game industry sales, one must remember that the installed base of gaming consoles has gotten dramatically bigger in recent years -- Madden sales just haven’t kept up with that growth.

The problem with Madden is that American football doesn't translate particularly well to other cultures and thus the population of NFL fans has a cap. And despite major improvements in quality, EA’s reputation remains mixed at best -- a situation similar to Microsoft (MSFT). Fans turned off by earlier, lousier editions of Madden may have just never come back.

As EA bulls will tell you, the stock is cheap on every measure. But even cheap stocks need catalysts, and I don’t see any blockbuster hits on the horizon.

EA is rebooting its tired Medal of Honor franchise into the modern era, but the level to which it's aping Activision’s (ATVI) mega-super-duper blockbuster Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series is borderline ridiculous.

Going beyond the exit from the World War II era, EA’s even copying Modern Warfare 2’s manufactured-controversy marketing strategy by allowing gamers to play as the Taliban. Modern Warfare 2, for its part, allowed gamers to choose to execute helpless civilians while posing as a terrorist during an undercover mission.

EA also has high hopes for EA Sports MMA.

However, the sport of mixed martial arts is dominated by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which awarded its video-game license to THQ (THQI).

And since THQ’s UFC Undisputed 2010 disappointed at the box office despite being tied to the rapidly growing UFC, I don’t see EA doing well with its patchwork effort.

Sell EA. It needs new blockbuster hits to augment its old guard, and that’s not even close to happening.
Position in THQI, AAPL

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