A vote of confidence?

Contact: Ben Kolada

There’s no denying that behavior in the equity markets is one of the main influencers on big-ticket M&A. Stock market stability provides a vote of confidence for corporate acquirers to pursue large, game-changing deals. Without stable markets, the valuation gap between buyers and sellers becomes too wide for potential sellers to accept. As a result, when the equity markets dip, so too does deal volume.

Nearly every drop in the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite stock index coincided with a drop in both the volume and value of acquisitions of publicly traded technology companies. (Note: we’ve limited the scope of this research to the acquisition of Nasdaq- and NYSE-listed companies valued at more than $250m.) The number of acquisitions of large public companies tracks the stock market so closely that while the Nasdaq ended 2011 basically flat from the prior year, so too did the number of large tech transactions.

Public company acquisitions relative to Nasdaq activity

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase, 451 Research

By early 2012, the Nasdaq had effectively regained the level it held before the credit crisis. Despite this bull run, however, there’s very little certainty or stability in the equity markets. Although not a flawless metric, we can use predictions for the IPO market as a gauge of 2012 activity. A stable stock market is desired before a private company hits the public stage. According to our 2011 Tech Banking Outlook Survey, which forecasts activity for 2012, bankers expect the public markets to be stable enough to welcome 25 new technology firms this year – the same number predicted for 2011.

But the number of IPOs is only half of the equation, as subsequent stock performance shows longer-term confidence in the newly public companies’ businesses. In 2011, we saw a number of fairly successful tech IPOs, many of which came from the consumer technology sector, such as LinkedIn and Zynga. But some of these vendors’ initial good fortunes were short-lived. LinkedIn, for example, has lost one-quarter of its market value since the company debuted in May 2011, and Zynga is trading below its offer price.

Among the top issues affecting stock markets are progress toward resolving or containing the European debt crisis and an agreement by the US congress on a bipartisan plan that would reduce the federal deficit by at least $1.3 trillion over the next 10 years. A full 85% of tech bankers surveyed answered that progress on the European debt crisis would increase M&A activity, while 73% said the same about progress on reducing the federal deficit. However, neither of these issues seems likely to be resolved anytime soon. The European sovereign debt crisis appears particularly hairy, after credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s recently downgraded nine major European nations’ credit ratings. Meanwhile, presidential election season in the US is likely to cause most to focus on campaigning rather than the federal deficit. While many weigh their options in voting for the next US president, the stock market may lose its vote of confidence, and deal volume could decline as a result.

EA gets serious about casual gaming

Contact: Brian Satterfield

In an expensive nod to the ever-increasing importance of online social media and mobile gaming, Electronic Arts has reached deep into its pockets to purchase Seattle-based PopCap Games for $750m. The transaction, which could end up costing EA as much as $1.3bn if the full earnout is hit, stands out as not only the priciest acquisition in EA’s history, but also the largest-ever deal in the online videogame sector.

This isn’t the first time that EA, best known for its console titles, has had to pay big to bring its gaming portfolio up to date. In 2005, the company entered the mobile sector with the $680m acquisition of Jamdat Mobile, then took out social gaming vendor Playfish for $300m in late 2009. However, the diversification has been slow. Sales of console-based games still accounted for 70% of EA’s total revenue in the just completed fiscal year. Overall revenue at the company was flat and EA guided for only slight growth in the current fiscal year.

In contrast, sales at social gaming upstart Zynga more than quadrupled last year. It’s all but certain that when Zynga, which filed its IPO paperwork earlier this month, hits the market, it will be valued higher than EA’s current market cap of just less than $8bn.

With the acquisition of PopCap games, EA now boasts six of 2010’s top 10 revenue-grossing iOS games and roughly 10 million daily average players on Facebook. But EA still has a long way to go if it hopes to grab a larger slice of Zynga’s daily average user base on Facebook, which currently numbers about 53 million.

Zynga buys beyond Facebook

Contact: Jarrett Streebin

Zynga has become a serious collector of small to medium-sized game development studios, acquiring seven companies so far this year. Beyond just buying more titles, the company has used M&A to get into other markets. For instance, Zynga has expanded internationally with XPD Media in China, Dextrose in Germany and Unoh in Japan. With the latest purchase of Bonfire Studios, which was announced October 5, it goes beyond Facebook gaming altogether into console and PC gaming.

Founded in 2007, Zynga has grown from a small social games developer into the largest shop on the block. The San Francisco-based firm is the leading developer of Facebook games and makes its money by selling virtual goods in its games. (We looked more fully at the market for virtual goods in a recent Sector IQ.) Users can pay real cash to buy weapons for their mafia or crops for their farms. Things were going well until Facebook unveiled Facebook Credits earlier this year. There was even a standoff between Zynga and Facebook due to the 30% cut that Facebook takes. Eventually, Zynga gave in and signed an exclusivity agreement.

Still, we sense that the company learned a valuable lesson about being overly dependent on a platform that it doesn’t own. At least that’s how we might read the fact that six of Zynga’s past seven deals are in other areas of gaming. The diversification has seen Zynga broaden its international business with the acquisitions of Chinese firm XPD Media, German game engine developer Dextrose and Japanese social gaming company Unoh. And most recently, Zynga’s reach for Bonfire Studios added a startup that was founded by three gaming veterans with PC and console experience.

What’s up with the Bay Area?

Contact: Ben Kolada

Bay Area buyers have roared back to life in 2010. Compared to the same period a year ago, Bay Area buyers’ deal volume has increased 46%, while at the national level M&A has risen only 21%. Year-to-date, Bay Area-based acquirers announced 230 transactions, 19% of all technology deals undertaken by US-based companies. Further, these companies represent 19% of the total declared deal amount, including four of the 18 billion dollar-plus transactions made by US-based buyers. In the same period last year, Bay Area acquirers did only 162 deals.

So, what’s up with the Bay Area? Our data suggests that 15 big serial acquirers accounted for most of the increase. In fact, the number of Bay Area buyers acquiring three or more companies increased five-fold in 2010, compared to a 50% increase at the national level. After waiting on the sidelines in 2009, these companies have resumed M&A activity in full force. As a group, they bought 52 more companies in year-to-date 2010 than they bought in 2009. (An interesting note, Internet content providers were the preferred targets across the board, representing 22% of acquired companies at both the Bay Area and national levels.)

M&A activity by Bay Area buyers

Acquirer 2010 deal volume, year-to-date 2009 year-ago period
Google 15 0
Oracle 7 5
Playdom 6 0
Apple 4 0
Facebook 4 0
Symantec 4 1
Synopsys 4 1
Trimble Navigation 4 5
Cisco Systems 3 3
Hewlett-Packard 3 2
TIBCO Software 3 0
Twitter 3 0
VMware [EMC] 3 0
Yahoo 3 0
Zynga 3 0
Totals 69 17

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase, 451 Group research

Google is the poster child for Bay Area M&A. Year-to-date, the company has been involved in 15 transactions – the most since it inked the same amount of deals in full-year 2007. However, the search giant is noticeably absent from the 2009 ranking. Even though Mountain View, California-based Google had $8.6bn in cash at the end of 2008, the vendor took nearly a year-long break from M&A activity. Google’s M&A drought began after it acquired TNC in September 2008 and ended 11 months later, when it announced its first purchase of a public company – On2 Technologies – in August 2009.

Bets on casual games are paying off

-Contact: Thomas Rasmussen, Brenon Daly

Fittingly enough, on the one-year anniversary of our piece predicting continued consolidation of the social and casual gaming space, Electronic Arts announced the industry’s largest acquisition. The Redwood City, California-based videogame giant acquired Playfish on November 9 for $275m, although an earnout could mean that EA will pay as much as $400m over the next two years for the company. We estimate that Playfish, which will be slotted into the EA Interactive division, generated about $50m in trailing sales. Overall M&A continues to be strong in the still-niche gaming sector, with deal volume up about 25% from last year with about 35 transactions inked so far in 2009.

With the gaming industry seemingly in recovery mode after not-so-horrible earnings announcements from industry bellwethers EA and Activision Blizzard, we’re confident that more videogame and media companies will look to add social networking games. (After all, the big gaming players have used M&A as a way to buy a piece of a fast-growing, emerging market. For instance, EA spent $680m in cash four years ago for Jamdat Mobile to get into wireless gaming.) With Playfish off the board, which other social gaming startups might find themselves targeted by one of the big gaming vendors?

While there are literally hundreds of promising startups, most are too small to be important enough for a big buyer. Nevertheless, there are a few firms that have grown – both organically and inorganically – enough to make them attractive acquisition targets. For instance, Playdom, which develops games primarily for MySpace and Facebook, recently reached for a pair of smaller gaming startups. The company also recently raised $43m. Similarly, Zynga recently raised a funding round ($15m) and has also picked up two small startups this year. Two other names to watch in the emerging social gaming market are Digital Chocolate and Social Gaming Network Inc.

Betting on casual gaming

-by Thomas Rasmussen

Casual gaming is a serious business. Amid a decline in M&A across the overall gaming industry, casual gaming acquisitions are trending up slightly. So far this year there have been 28 social and casual gaming deals inked, which compares to 25 for all of last year. This is in stark contrast to a sharp decline of more than 30% in tech and gaming M&A in general. What might the reason be for this and what does it portend for the year to come?

The past month has authoritatively invalidated a long-held belief by those in the gaming industry: It is not a recession-proof sector. In fact, lackluster earnings from Electronic Arts (EA) and others have the industry anxious. EA posted a negative EBITDA of $310m, provided dire forecasts and announced across-the-board job cuts for the most recent quarter ended September 30. The bright spot, however, is the continuing growth in casual gaming among not only the big videogame companies such as EA, but other companies, as well. For instance, RealNetworks’ recent third-quarter earnings report boasts another 20% increase in its gaming business compared to last quarter. As the casual gaming industry continues to be seen more as a viable business model, we expect the shopping to continue for not only the gaming conglomerates, but also for large media companies looking to get in the game. Amazon’s recent acquisition of Reflexive Entertainment is an example of new acquirers shopping in the space.

Not that it is a hard trend to spot, but for what it’s worth, VCs, angels and serial entrepreneurs have been touting this development to us all year, and are putting their money where their mouths are. Among some of the startups to receive sizable funding recently are Playfish, which raised a $17m series B round last month for a total of $21m to date; Social Gaming Network Inc, which has won about $20m in funding so far; and Zynga Game Network, which has taken in $39m. That is a lot of money for companies in an industry previously regarded as a niche. And given the heavy consolidation experienced in the traditional gaming industry, all of these vendors are likely to be part of the many names mentioned in M&A chatter in the near future.