Watch Out, Investors: 'Candy Crush' IPO May Rot Your Teeth

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Candy Crush Game Maker King Announces IPO to List in New York
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
"Candy Crush Saga" fans know that it's not always easy to find the right match, but that's not stopping its developer King Digital Entertainment from hoping that it's the right match for investors.

The mobile game-maker's IPO finally hits the market Wednesday, and it's easy to see why there isn't a lot of consensus as to where King's stock will go after its Wall Street debut.

Bears can point to Zynga (ZNGA), the game giant behind "FarmVille," "Words with Friends" and "Draw Something" that went public with a market cap of $8.9 billion three years ago. It fell out of favor once its hottest games began fading in popularity, leaving Zynga with cascading revenue and bookings as its new releases failed to captivate players.

If Zynga stumbled with so many hit franchises, what can investors expect out of King, which is really riding on the success of a single game that wasn't even around two years ago?

King's Sticky-Sweet Success So Far

Investors angling to get in on this week's IPO will see things differently than the naysayers.

Yes, King is a one-trick pony, but it's a heck of a trick. The sticky success of "Candy Crush Saga" -- a free-to-play game where players can pay up for extra moves and to expedite the opening of new levels --
finds King generating a lot more money than Zynga did at its 2012 peak.

King's gross bookings skyrocketed from $181.6 million in 2012 to nearly $2 billion last year. Zynga never got that high. Its gross bookings topped out two years ago at $1.15 billion before plunging to $716 million last year. King's also been consistently profitable since "Candy Crush Saga" was introduced 23 months ago. Zynga can't say that.

Bulls will also point out that even at the high end of its pricing range, King's initial market cap will be less than Zynga at the time of its 2011 IPO.

The sheer success of "Candy Crush Saga" can't be ignored. It drew 93 million daily active players for the month of December, and those users played an average of 1.085 billion games a day. Across its entire portfolio of diversions, King attracted 128 million players for the month.

These are impressive metrics, but the bearish argument also packs a pretty fierce bite.

Good Timing on the IPO

The biggest thing that could keep King's IPO in check is that it's already showing signs of peaking.

Quarterly revenue, gross bookings, earnings, adjusted earnings and monthly unique payers all fell from the third quarter of last year to the fourth quarter. It's not a seasonal thing. King's one-trick pony -- a stallion, if you will -- may have peaked late last summer. We won't know if that's the case until we can sink our teeth into this year's freshman quarter, and that won't come until at least late April. By then the IPO will already have been trading for several weeks.

Things don't have to end badly, naturally, but investors are right to be cautious. An initial pop Wednesday could be a head fake. We saw that happen with Zynga which traded above its $10 IPO price for most of the four months following its IPO in late 2011. Then again, Zynga was still growing as a company through most of 2012. King's first quarter report in a few weeks will be critical.

The market saw in Zynga what happens when a debutante starts to stumble. A share of Zynga these days won't be enough to buy you a value meal.

A lot is riding on the popularity of a single game. Its next most popular offering -- "Pet Rescue Saga" -- attracted just 15 million daily active players, and they played fewer games a day on average than "Candy Crush" crushers.

It also doesn't help that "Candy Crush Saga" relies on in-game purchases for nearly all of its revenue. King stopped turning to third-party advertisers several quarters ago, preferring gamers to pay up for perks instead of putting up with ads for free gameplay. This could be a factor because folks hooked on the game aren't just carving out time to play. "Candy Crush Saga" is costing them money.

Can It Maintain that Sugar Buzz?

King still deserves credit for going where no Zynga has gone before. Yes, it's all riding on one game. King has failed to woo "Candy Crush Saga" players into other diversions despite promoting its other games within "Candy Crush Saga" itself. This isn't really so awful, especially if it's able to exploit its one marquee game into licensing opportunities including toys, merchandise, and even filmed entertainment. Look at "Angry Birds."

However, investors need to be cautious here. The valuation is somewhat fair at the starting gate, unlike the bubbly overvalued situation that we saw when Zynga went public. The market's jaded after being burned by Zynga, so it has to be this way.

Still, King will have plenty to prove in the coming quarters if it intends to keep its crown.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned.


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