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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.
Although its games are free-to-play and widely accessible on Facebook, Zynga makes money by selling virtual items that are avidly hoarded by collectors, competitive players, and obsessives. Among the risk factors Zynga listed in its prospectus: “We rely on a small percentage of our players for nearly all of our revenue.” It didn’t specify the percentage of people willing to fork over a few dollars for a virtual barn, building, or tractor, but multiple people familiar with the booming business of digital goods, including one former Zynga employee who did not want to be named discussing internal matters, suggest that less than 10 percent of Zynga’s players spend money and less than 1 percent are responsible for between a quarter and a half of the company’s revenue. Las Vegas has a name for that kind of incredibly profitable patron: whales.
Game makers don’t like to talk about whale management, but people familiar with Zynga say it does internally refer to its high-value customers as whales and has offered them membership in a VIP “Platinum” club. Whales get special discounts and can wire sums of $500 or more directly from their bank accounts to Zynga. The company declined to comment for this story, citing its SEC-mandated quiet period.
One person familiar with Zynga’s business, who requested not to be named because his company works with Zynga, says a user spent $75,000 in one year on a single game. “The compulsion in Vegas is the illusion you can make money. The compulsion in social games is the illusion you can be more successful than your friends,” says Peter Relan, chief executive officer of CrowdStar, a Zynga rival that has about 24 million players, including as many as 200 people who spend more than $10,000 a year. “In both cases, you’re working with people’s emotions and psychological needs.”
So who are these whales? Relan and executives at other virtual-goods companies say they tend to be comparatively wealthy, older players. They’re also willing to pay to get ahead and avoid the slog of achievement—such as constructing buildings and collecting rent in CityVille—usually necessary to earn the in-game currency for buying virtual items. Tagged, a San Francisco social network and gaming company with 100 million registered users, says that for the first six months of the year, the top 1 percent of its players accounted for 46 percent of its gaming revenue. About half of those were American, and 59 percent of those U.S. players were male with an average age of 48. “A lot of these whales don’t have the patience or the time to go through all the stuff by playing,” says Greg Tseng, Tagged’s CEO who recently hired a former Myspace customer service executive to build a VIP concierge service to give deals to its best players. “They just dump in a lot of money to get ahead.”
Zynga’s FarmVille features virtual-goods updates at least twice a week. (Among the most recent were a Fourth of July decorative water fountain and a Charro gnome, part of a limited edition Mexico-themed collection.) The company also cultivates scarcity to drive up the value of items. In February 2010, Zynga introduced an Unwither Ring in FarmVille, which guarantees a player’s crops will never wilt and die from neglect. The item cost 250 in farm cash, or around $50, and has been offered only a few times for limited periods since it was first introduced. Mafia Wars, one of Zynga’s first hits, is built around what game designers call “sinks”—parts of the game, such as player-vs.-player gun fights, that motivate users to sink money into additional energy points and weapons to increase their chances to win. “You might as well target whales because targeting everyone else is too difficult,” says Alex St. John, president of online gaming network Hi5. As for those who play without spending, there’s probably nothing that will coax them to open their wallets. And despite the popularity of social games on Facebook, St. John says the process of buying Facebook Credits, which users purchase to convert into currency for specific games, is too confusing for everyone but the most committed players.
As investors scrutinize Zynga’s numbers in the weeks ahead, they’ll have a lot to consider: whether the company is too dependent on Facebook, whether it can keep minting hits such as FarmVille, CityVille, and its new strategy-and-combat game Empires & Allies, and particularly, whether it can keep reeling in whales. Tseng from Tagged thinks the virtual goods model is brilliantly efficient, because it allows everyone to pay what they want to pay. Casual users play for free; hard-core addicts pay through the nose. Either way, it costs virtually nothing to create and sell a virtual good. “Every player has their own price,” he says. “Really that is the beauty of the virtual currency model.”
Some of its most enthusiastic players, though, wonder if Zynga is asking too much of its whales. Ibgui, who proudly shows off pictures of her horse and gnome collections, frets that Zynga has started releasing too many items too quickly and at inflated prices. “They are pushing it,” she says. “It makes them come across as money-hungry.” Then there are players such as Christine Marie Wilson, a retired paramedic from Houston who for months played FarmVille nearly “every spare minute” and bought Zynga gift cards at Wal-Mart (WMT) at every opportunity. Earlier this year she quit the game entirely, after recognizing that it had become an addiction that she was concealing even from her family. “I was like a gambler,” she says. “I hid it pretty well from them.”
The bottom line: Zynga, which quintupled sales last year and filed for an IPO in July, has a casino-like reliance on its biggest customers.