Starcraft II slipping into 2010?

Market Watch speculates Activision Blizzard's 14% stock slip is due to a soon-to-be announced bump for Blizzard's heavily anticipated sci-fi RTS.

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Source: A report on the financial Web site Market Watch.

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What we heard: With no end to the global recession in sight, many nervous publishers have been pushing their games out of the 2009 holiday season. One-time 2009 titles include Sega's Bayonetta, Ubisoft's Splinter Cell: Conviction and Red Steel 2, and Take-Two's Red Dead Redemption, Mafia II, and BioShock 2. The world's current top third-party publisher, Activision Blizzard, also recently postponed its high-profile new IP Singularity until the first quarter of next year.

Now, though, worries are spreading that Activision Blizzard may soon announce a much bigger schedule change. In particular, Market Watch is wondering if fears of a Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty delay are behind the publisher's 14 percent, 30-day stock slide. As evidence, it points to several analyst notes which raise the specter of the game slipping into 2010.

"While it is not inevitable that Starcraft II is delayed, the speculation is running rampant that this is the case," said Signal Hill's Todd Greenwald. Brean Murray's Jess Lubert got even more specific, saying, "The beta testing for Starcraft [II] hasn't started yet. If it starts in August and takes 5-6 months, then launching the game this year is next to impossible."

The official story: Shortly before last month's Electronic Entertainment Expo, Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime said that he expected the first of the three Starcraft II installments to launch by year's end. However, he gave the typical Blizzard caveat that it would only ship when it was done.

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Morhaime's words were echoed today by a Blizzard rep, who would only say the following: "Development on Starcraft II is progressing nicely, but as with all Blizzard games, we won't release it until we feel it will meet our high standards and the expectations of our players."

Bogus or not bogus?: With Blizzard remaining mum, GameSpot asked two top game analysts whether they thought Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty would be delayed. One believes it will, the other is less sure.

"Starcraft II will likely be delayed into Q1 or Q2 of next year," declared Jesse Divnich, director of analyst services at Electronic Entertainment Design and Research. "The rumors of a Starcraft II delay are rampant, very similar to the same rumors that existed with Splinter Cell. And like Splinter Cell, the parent publishing company is not going on the record to dismiss these rumors…probably for good reason."

As evidence of a delay, Divnich points to Activision's announcement last week that it will release its quarterly numbers the afternoon of Wednesday, August 5. "Pre-announcing the delay of Starcraft II without informing investors on how this may or may not affect the company's financial health is borderline illegal and in bad taste. With their quarterly call just around the corner, we can expect Activision to make a firm decision on whether or not Starcraft II will be hitting store shelves this holiday season." He pointed out how Take-Two Interactive announced BioShock 2's delay via a conference call.

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Webush Morgan Securities' Michael Pachter is less sure that Starcraft II has left 2009's orbit. "Nobody actually knows," he declared. "Blizzard quite likely made a flawless game, so the beta test is not going to be about discovering bugs in the software. It's all about balance of gameplay, making sure that the three races have equal powers, weapons, defenses, etc. Blizzard has probably gotten pretty close already (the friends and family beta is going on right now), but until they get 30,000 people playing 20 hours a day, it's going to be tough to know if everything is perfectly balanced. Will this take more than 4 months? Who knows."

The oft-quoted analyst does think that the massive media push behind another Activision Blizzard holiday release will act as an insurance policy. "Activision has taken steps to mitigate the possible delay by deciding to advertise the heck out of Modern Warfare 2," declared Pachter. "They hope to drive higher sales of the game this fall, partially or fully mitigating the loss of sales from a potential Starcraft II slip."

That said, one thing Pachter is absolutely confident of is that Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty will soar at retail. "I think Starcraft II will sell 4 million its first quarter, and 2 million in the three quarters thereafter," predicted the analyst. "I'd bet that 3/4 or more of these units are international."

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