'Call of Duty' can't put videogame publisher in the black

Activision Blizzard, the videogame industry’s largest publisher, posted a loss of $286 million during the pivotal holiday sales season, despite having the bestselling game of the year with “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.”

The company generated nearly $1.6 billion in revenue during the last three months of 2009, a 5% drop over the same quarter in 2008. It reported a loss of $72 million during the same year-ago period.

The latest installment of “Call of Duty” has earned more than $1 billion worldwide since its November release. It was the first game to earn $550 million after five days.”World of Warcraft” continues to perform well; as of Dec. 31, the title boasted more than 11.5 million subscribers who pay to play the online role-playing game.

But the latest “Tony Hawk” with a skateboard-shaped controller, didn’t sell as well as hoped. And while “Guitar Hero” remains the top music franchise, interest in the category has fallen. The launch of “DJ Hero” was the highest-earning new title to bow last year, but its sales have disappointed the biz.

Activision released 25 versions of its music games last year. Only 10 are planned this year, publishing chief Mike Griffith said on a conference call with analysts. Company will release just one game this quarter, “How to Train Your Dragon.” based on DreamWorks Animation’s toon flying into theaters in March.

Activision’s loss came primarily from a $241 million writedown. Activision also announced a $1 billion stock-buyback effort, its second in two years.

The drop in earnings comes as game sales fell 8% to $19.7 billion last year from a record $21.4 billion in 2008.

Other publishers also took a hit during the holidays:

– Electronic Arts (“Dante’s Inferno,” “Dragon Age: Origins,” “Left 4 Dead 2,” “Madden NFL 10,” “The Sims 3″) this week reported a 25% drop in revenue to $1.2 billion and a loss of $82 million during the last three months.

– Cost-cutting moves at THQ (“WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2010″) helped the company post a profit of $542,000, up from a loss of $192 million a year earlier. Revenue came in at $357 million.

– Ubisoft (“Assassin’s Creed 2″) reported $693 million in sales, a drop of nearly 3%. Profits were not broken out by the French gamemaker. Sales of its “Avatar” game were weaker than expected, the company said. It will launch at least seven franchise titles this year, including new versions of “Ghost Recon: Future Soldier,” “Driver,” “Prince of Persia” and “Splinter Cell,” along with new title “R.U.S.E.”

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