The whole "Oh god, Zynga is morally and creatively bankrupt" line is at least 6 months old at this point (and for a company that's only 3 years old, that's a pretty long time). Look at the recent acquisitions and releases... FrontierVille was made by Brian Reynolds's team (you know Civ 2, Alpha Centauri, and Rise of Nations, right? Yeah, that Brian Reynolds.) and is by all accounts quite successful. Zynga just bought Bonfire (ex-Ensemble, responsible for Age of Empires and Halo Wars). "Good" (more interesting, fun, higher production values, etc) games are slowly cropping up on Facebook, and more people on getting on board, not just because it's a perceived money train, but because it actually allows you to do something new as a designer.
For the first time in 12 years, my mother understands and enjoys the kinds of games I make. My aunts hassle me to add particular items to my game. Granted, I still haven't figured out a way to tell people what I do without them narrowing their eyes at me... (Previous: "You work on video games, huh? Like Grand Theft Auto, that game is so violent and bad for society!" Now: "You work on FarmVille!? I [love|hate] that game!")
Incidentally, two of the people quoted (Jesse Schell and Daniel James) both make very similar social games on Facebook.
I really did enjoy Frontierville for the first week or so. There was something therapeutic about tending to my farm, hitting snakes, adding some new trinkets. It's the same pleasure centers as Animal Crossing hits. Then I need to build a building, which requires all sorts of tools, which you can either buy with real money, or get from friends. Those took a couple of days to acquire from my friends. "I'm glad I don't have to do that again" I exclaim. Lo and behold, it's revealed to me that if I want the next building, at my rate of tool acquisition, building the house would take months. My choice was "Pay up, spam more friends, or I dare you to quit." I quit.
Does it matter that a game designer I greatly admire was putting me in this ridiculous situation in his game? Actually, yes it does. It makes it burn more when a man I respect is telling the press how great Zynga is and how much freedom he has, and then he's producing games like this. It's hard not to feel he's simply happy cashing pay checks, players be damned.
I'm not adverse to the idea of paying for games that are Freemium, I put a decent amount of money into Free Realms. But FR was careful to make the transactions in there not required: much of the game (apart from some jobs) was available to you, and that game design didn't require a microtransaction sword or whatever to progress. No money was required, which is the difference with Zynga's games.
Facebook games are a great new place to be. I have no chip about Zynga's Scrooge McDuck money bins, and respect them for their success, the metrics-based technology they have at the backend, and the amazing team they've managed to put together. But the products they produce are cynical and anti-player. And that's why people hate them.
So what is your point here... It doesn't matter how long ago something like that is said; does it have any merit? Also, I think the first time I heard that kind of observation was a lot earlier than 6 months ago, and I actually still hear it.
I would really love to read a full blown social psych journal article on Farmville.
I don't like the My Little Pony games aimed at 6 year old girls, but I won't say they are bad because I know I am not a 6 year old girl.
PopCap are definitely the company to look at here. They spent a decent number of years cloning smaller games, which was not to their credit. In the last 4 years or so, they've been creating amazing original IP. And those games are doing gangbusters with all sorts of audiences. You don't have to create bad games in order to engage new audiences, you just have to tap into what they are interested in.
Game reviews do not use a good game checklist to explain why a game is good or bad, they give their opinion. You can say Zynga games are bad, but supposing that your opinion should apply to everyone is arrogant.
By what metric are other art forms judged? How are the Oscars awarded to movies? Who chooses the winner of the Booker prize? Or the VMAs? Peer approval.
Zynga doesn't have peer approval from many game designers. This article highlights some dissenting opinion, but there's plenty more out there. Just Google it. Their infamous speech speech at GDC Awards show doesn't help their cause either. 
Note I am careful not to say "games reviewers" because reviewers are writing for their audience, and that core game audience usually does not intersect with Zynga.
Self-assessment isn't a perfect metric either, but differences in self-assessment between players of different kinds of games might give something interesting. I mean, if you go only by money made, the slot machine is still the best game of all time. Which maybe is true on one axis of "best", but it seems weird to argue that it's the only possible way to discuss games. Is looking at the top-grossing films list the only possible way to discuss films?
Of course you can make up metrics based on averages of everyone's opinions, or weighted averages where you weight by the "sophistication" (in some sense) of the person's opinion. But nobody will believe such metrics anyway, in that you'll never catch anybody saying "I hate this game/book/album, but this reliable metric says it's good, so I guess it must actually be good!"
If Farmville is bad, it falls into the "fascinatingly bad" category of things that are derided by professional opinion-makers but still vastly popular. Genuinely bad games, books and bands are a dime a dozen -- check out a publisher's reject pile, an open mike night or a twelve year old programmer's hard disk for examples -- but fascinatingly bad things like The Da Vinci Code or Nickelback or Farmville deserve a lot more analysis.
It's like Solitaire. I've played countless games over the years, but I don't recall every actually enjoying the time spent playing it. Normally I was just avoiding doing something else.
They have no scruples or creativity and no apologies to make for it.
I think this type of game has occurred to many people. Back when I was doing coding for a MUD I was considering adding farming mechanics, because I thought it would be fun to come back later to the game to gather and sell the plants. More fun than the mining mechanic they had, which consisted of basically moving around the map and just typing "mine" over and over again.
But then I figured, who would care about farming when you can already kill monsters in battle. Instead I created a virtual sauna.
"We're afraid because we make big-budget games, and Zynga has made people pay for low-budget games."
I've thought for quite some time that game budgets in the millions are getting out of control. (And movies, too, for that matter.)
Good controls, decent visuals and audio, and great plot and/or mechanics. That's what makes the best games. Big-budget games ramp up the visuals and skimp on the rest. I'm sick of that.
Not that Zynga has plot (at all) or mechanics, mind. But they're cheap enough and they make you happy, so it works. I broke my Facebook games habit about 6 months ago. Prior to that, I did 'donate' way more than I should have to a couple (non-Zynga) games. Eventually, the repetitive mechanics palled and I broke free of it.
Big-budget game companies need to learn from Zynga. They need to use the same techniques that compel people to play Zenga games, but in bigger, better games that actually have more. Instead of being scared or saying Zynga is breaking their market, they should learn and improve.
And some have been doing it for years. Achievements, collectables, upgrades, bonuses... Pokemon even has it as the slogan: "Gotta catch 'em all!"
Any game designers that are 'gloomy' over Zynga's success are flat failing to learn from the situation.
Nobody gets annoyed at the success of Bejeweled or Sally's Spa or their many knockoffs. They're simple, but they're not "evil".
Good controls, decent visuals and audio, and great plot and/or mechanics. That's what makes the best games.
And Farmville has none of those. It's just a Skinner box. (So is WoW, but at least it has a skill component).
SC2 is such a finely tuned piece of gaming, I spend 30 minutes a day just watching replays at http://youtube.com/hdstarcraft. It beats watching most TV series. It's so good, I bought the game just to support Blizzard, even though I mostly just watch others play.
Also, there's a distinction between fun and addictive.
Finally, I'm not sure they are actually losing all that many sales - how many people playing Farmville would have paid for Neverwinter Nights?
You just stumbled onto the real issue right there. All these people have been making amazing games, but they all appeal to the gamer market. Zygna has found out how to reach the the traditional non-gamer. It might be a hard pill to swallow, but the truth is that games like Farmville appeal to the majority of people who would never really pay for games before.
Well, no, I was well aware of that argument. But I'll take it in the spirit it was intended. ;-)
Sure, you could chalk it up to jealousy of success, but the reality is that there are people out there who are in it for more than money, and sometimes it hurts on a visceral level to see mediocrity succeed wildly.
Mediocre is a relative term. What is this based on? To you it might mean graphics to me it might mean the storyline.
This happens in more than just the gaming industry. Look at how much attention instant youtube got a few weeks ago. The developer just slapped together some ajax using a pre-built API. As a developer, I could have written the same thing in a relatively short amount of time. Yet, it got him lots of attention and a job offer.
I also say the same thing about things like Django. Rather than knowing how everything works, developers are putting blocks of pre-built code together to build applications. I am almost certain the assembly guys were saying the same thing when C became popular.
It's pretty lame tabloidish reporting, really. There could've been an article about this, and if the reporter actually conducted 1 hr+ interviews, he had the material to write one. But instead he cherry picked four quotes, slapped on a big image, and hit publish.
But the harsh reality of the game industry often dictates that designers must choose between the two goals. And the harsh reality of having to eat and pay rent often dictates that one must prioritize the latter.
Zynga's success puts this tradeoff in the starkest possible relief.
This exactly is what playing most MMO games is all about: the grind for stuff. I don't see a reason this should be considered that threatening to anything. The draw of MMO Games is the sense of accomplishment (next level, next piece of gear), and in any games now that've implemented achievements (Modern Warfare 2, Left 4 Dead, Quake Live, Starcraft 2 the list goes on forever) it's the same feeling of accomplishment when you get your 500th midair knife kill.
That's just the direction games are going. Give the user a a feeling of accomplishment.
I don't see anything warranting a gloomy outlook on games because of farmville, especially, since I don't see a huge overlap in target markets.
1. Recognizing natural progress in the game.
2. Interesting challenges that test or develop your skill.
Neither should be a "grind" in the Farmville or even WoW sense. Some games fail at this, but by and large I don't think the "junkie behavior" label applies.
The only thing that annoys me about Farmville and related games is the way they rely on getting people to spam their friends for viral growth. Now, I put them all on "ignore" as soon as I see them pop up so I've never got more than one notification from Farmville itself, but I have to keep on blocking all these damn games.
(just don't get me wrong - i like Hollywood, especially "governator", and it isn't Bach that is in my earphones - pop-culture has it for each of us, i'm just too old for Facebook/Farmville)