Activision Blizzard beats Q3 targets and pins earnings hopes on Modern Warfare 3

Video game publisher Activision Blizzard reported better-than-expected earnings for its third quarter ended Sept. 30. Those results do not include revenues from Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3, which launched yesterday with a huge fan reception.

Activision Blizzard raised its guidance for the fourth quarter based on its optimism about the reception for Modern Warfare 3, which we rated as one of the best games of the year.

The Santa Monica, Calif.-based company is the largest independent video game publisher and its results are a bellwether for the core console video game and PC game businesses. Some companies have performed well in the industry, but the core console video game market has been shrinking for much of the year. Activision Blizzard, like other companies, is pinning its hopes on a stellar fourth quarter.

Bobby Kotick, chief executive of Activision Blizzard, said in a statement, “Today, we launched Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3, which is perhaps the most anticipated video game in history.”

He touted the new online social networking service Call of Duty Elite, (which isn’t working so well today) that “makes playing together easier and more fun than ever before.” He added, “Call of Duty Elite is a truly new form of entertainment combining Facebook-like social networking features and online television shows, offering the most accessible way to play Call of Duty games with other people.”

Kotick said that audience for games is broadening and is becoming as important as film and television as a mass market form of entertainment. He said the company is raising the full-year financial outlook due to better-than-expected sales for Modern Warfare 3 and Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventures. In 2012, the company expects to launch Diablo III and a new Call of Duty game.

Analysts estimated that the company would report a profit of 2 cents a share on revenue of $558.4 million. But Activision Blizzard came in with a non-GAAP profit of 7 cents a share and revenues of $627 million.

Previously, Activision Blizzard reported better-than-expected earnings for the second quarter ended June 30.

On Monday, Activision Blizzard hit a new 52-week high in advance of the Tuesday morning launch of Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3. Activision Blizzard is the industry’s most valuable company, with a market capitalization of $15.93 billion. That’s about twice the value of close rival Electronic Arts, which is valued at $8 billion.

Of course, things could change if Zynga proceeds with its planned initial public offering after Thanksgiving, and if Zynga’s valuation comes in at the high-range of estimates. (Those are big ifs).

During the quarter, the company reported GAAP revenues of $754 million, compared with $745 million a year earlier. On a non-GAAP basis, revenues were $627 million, compared with $857 million a year earlier. GAAP earnings per share were 13 cents, compared to 4 cents a year earlier. On a non-GAAP basis, earnings per share were 7 cents, compared to 12 cents a year ago.

Activision Blizzard said that Call of Duty Black Ops, which debuted last year, has been the best-selling game in dollars in the U.S. and Europe for the first three quarters of the year. Black Ops players have logged more than 2.8 billion hours of online game play, up from 2.2 billion in the prior quarter. The total number of unique gamers for Black Ops was 29 percent higher than the previous game, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, in the first 11 months after release.

For the full year, Activision Blizzard expects GAAP revenue of $4.33 billion and earnings per share of 76 cents. In the fourth quarter, it expects revenue of $980 million and a GAAP loss of 8 cents a share.