|OK, maybe this game does represent the end of culture as we know it.|
It's a good way to pick up talent with demonstrated ability, and not incidentally grow your portfolio of games. One of the concerns for a company with a big hit or two is to make sure in case that big hit falters, you've got enough other titles to pick up the slack. Not that Farmville is going away any time soon, but Zynga's definitely making sure they have enough other things going on.
It's kind of funny watching some of the reaction to Zynga, like this rant from Denis Dyack, founder of Silicon Knights. He thinks Facebook gaming is going to crash hard, very soon... probably because he's not doing it, and his games aren't doing all that well. A good takedown of Denis is here. Really, it's pretty simple to figure out, Denis. If a company's making good money, which I'm pretty sure Zynga is, then clearly somebody somewhere likes what they're doing, and they're voting with their dollars. Doesn't mean you have to like their games, but ranting about how unfair it all is doesn't not help you.
One of the important lessons I learned as a game publisher was the difference between "a game I really loved" and "a game that makes a profit." Sadly, those two are not always the same thing... and then you have to decide if you're in business to satisfy some inner artistic desire, or are you there to make money. Do both when you can, to be sure, but you need to make a profit if you want to keep the doors open.
Yes, the rapid rise of Facebook gaming does make one wonder if it's a Pet Rock, or something like Guitar Hero. But when it's not just Zynga, but a number of other companies, and many different titles, and the users number in the many millions, it's gone beyond fad territory. I'd worry about Zynga if all they had was Farmville, and they were totally dependent on Facebook. But they seem to this outsider to have a good portfolio of games (Cityville has outshone Farmville), and heck, Farmville is not doing too badly at all even after quite a while on the market. The next challenge for Zynga will be managing the transition from insane growth to just growth, at whatever point that occurs in the next few years. We should all have such problems.
Bottom line: Social gaming has uncovered a huge market of players, and there are still a lot of places where it has yet to penetrate. Plus, the designs are still at the early days, and many new types of social gaming are doubtless still to be seen. I think there's a lot of growth potential left in the business, and still room for new players... at least until they get hoovered up by the likes of Zynga. Not a bad fate, really, especially if you get to keep making games you enjoy.