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Zynga’s Quest for Big-Spending Whales

A tiny number of virtual-goods high rollers supply the bulk of the game maker’s revenue

Joelle Ibgui collects horses. Lots of horses. In her stable of 108 colorful creatures is a Clydesdale, an Asian wild foal, a spotted appaloosa, and a clown pony, which sports a bow tie, a red honk nose, and a rainbow-colored wig—and cost about $5. The pony and its companions are not real animals, of course, but virtual ones in the hit online game FarmVille, produced by Zynga, the hottest gaming company on the Web and soon, perhaps, on Wall Street. Ibgui, a 30-year-old real estate manager from Kew Gardens, N.Y., has played FarmVille since its introduction two years ago and last year spent more than $500 to burnish her farm and get ahead in the game. “In the winter there came a point when I was playing six hours a day,” she says. “It does get addictive. It does get to the point where you’re not picking up your phone when it’s ringing.”

On July 1, Zynga filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission to raise up to $1 billion in a sure-to-be blockbuster initial public offering. To investors immune to ominous talk of tech bubbles, the numbers look alluring: The San Francisco company has 232 million active monthly users; last year it posted a net income of $90.6 million on revenue of $597 million, which was up fivefold from 2009. In the quarter that ended in March, profit was $11.8 million.