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WoW Classic Lead Developer Leaves Blizzard over Stack-Ranking Policy
WoW Classic Lead Developer Brian Birmingham has left Blizzard after refusing to adhere to the company's stack-ranking policy, which forces managers to give low ratings to a percentage of their employees to show a curve of improvement and fill a quota. Originally, Birmingham was not planning to make this public knowledge, but after Bloomberg broke the news, several other news outlets did the same, and he has now made a statement on Twitter.

Originally Posted by Brian Birmingham
"I wasn't intending to make this public, but apparently its in the news already, so I'd at least like to set the record straight. I am no longer an employee of Blizzard Entertainment, though I would return if allowed to, so that I could fight the stack-ranking policy from inside. I'm told the forced stack-ranking policy is a directive that came from the ABK level, ABOVE Mike Ybarra. I don't know for sure, but I suspect it's true. Everybody at Blizzard I've spoken to about this, including my direct supervisors, expressed disappointment about this policy.

For those who don't know, "ABK" is the parent company formed when Activision Publishing expressed their interest in buying World of Warcraft from Vivendi in 2008. Blizzard's market value was enough that Activision Publishing could NOT buy it outright... Instead they arranged to form a new company called, "Activision Blizzard" which would own Activision Publishing and Vivendi's games division, including Blizzard Entertainment. Vivendi had >50% of the shares of "Activision Blizzard" at that time.

In creating "Activision Blizzard" they needed an executive, and Bobby Kotick, from Activision Publishing was selected as the new CEO of Activision Blizzard. Mike Morhaime, still President of Blizzard at that time, reported up to Bobby Kotick's staff at "Activision Blizzard"

Bobby and an investor group staged a "hostile takeover" meaning that they bought up more than 50% of Activision Blizzard shares. (There's no actual violence in a "hostile takeover" despite the name). I forget which year this happened, but it resulted in greater control.

Activision Blizzard then acquired "King" becoming "Activision Blizzard King," or "ABK." ABK was then a parent company of 3 different companies that they owned:
- Activision Publishing
- Blizzard Entertainment
- King

IIRC, the first year we were asked to meet a specific quota of "Developing" ratings was in the 2020 evaluations, across the winter of 2020/2021. IIRC this was also the first year they tried to unify the review/appraisal systems across all three child business units. Activision, Blizzard, and King all had *similar* appraisal processes by this point, and ABK wanted to unify them into one. Presumably this was the motivation for *enforcing* a 5% "developing" rating: to make it match in all 3 studios. I'm not defending this, only explaining.

We at Blizzard pushed back pretty hard in 2021, and I truly believed we had reversed the developing-quota policy. When the sexual harassment lawsuit was revealed later that year, we saw some change following that as well, and it felt like we could make an impact on ABK policies. The realization that there's still a minimum quota for "Developing," despite our objections and sternly worded letters leads me to believe I was operating under an illusion. I hope Blizzard's positive culture can overcome ABK's poison, but it isn't succeeding in doing that yet.

So having explained all that, I bear no ill will toward my former colleagues at Blizzard Entertainment. The Blizzard I knew and always wanted to work for is being torn apart by the executives at ABK, and it makes me sad. I truly respect the developers I worked with at Blizzard. I will still play Blizzard games; the developers at Blizzard are still amazing. Dragonflight and Wrath of the Lich King Classic are gems. Dragon Riding is amazing in Dragonflight, as is the Ulduar raid, and the new Titan Rune Dungeons in Wrath of the Lich King.

But ABK is a problematic parent company. They put us under pressure to deliver both expansions early. It is deeply unjust to follow that by depriving employees who worked on them their fair share of profit. The ABK team should be ashamed of themselves. I must stress that the above is *my best recollection* of events. It covers a lot of years, and human memory is notoriously imperfect. I do believe that the broad strokes are accurate:
- The "developing" quota is toxic
- It is an ABK policy
- It is being forced on Blizzard

I can't tell you whether to boycott Blizzard games or not. How best to express your displeasure is up to you. As I said above: I won't boycott. But I can't participate in a policy that lets ABK steal money from deserving employees, and I can't be made to lie about it either. And to wrap up I want to again clarify that I was surprised to see the Bloomberg article below. I did NOT provide them the email they're quoting from, but I believe the quotes are accurate. They have neither spoken to me nor reached out to me in any way."

Brian Birmingham via Twitter
This article was originally published in forum thread: WoW Classic Lead Developer Leaves Blizzard over Stack-Ranking Policy started by Stoy View original post
Comments 108 Comments
  1. Biomega's Avatar
    Good for him. I'm sure plenty of companies will be looking to hire him. At least I hope so.

    Stack-ranking and similar "80-20" systems are an abomination. Perverse incentives erode corporate structures and undermine the creative process - and that's just the business side of things, not even touching upon how inhumane and personally degrading they tend to be as well. Not to mention that they've been shown to reinforce and exacerbate systemic biases, too.

    This isn't a "Blizzard is evil!" problem of course. Plenty of companies use this system, or something similar. Doesn't help Blizzard given it's already not that popular in the public eye when it comes to its corporate practices, but it's definitely far more widespread than Blizzard, or tech companies in general.
  1. MiiiMiii's Avatar
    Damn, sad to see him go he knew what he was talking about for Classic WoW.

    Maybe he will come back once Microsoft takes over.

    Good luck Brian.
  1. Aggressive's Avatar
    Blizzard can't help but stay the hell out of the spotlight. They need to get their crap together. Utterly ridiculous
  1. Relapses's Avatar
    Yet another reason Blizzard should unionize for $1,000, Alex.
  1. Shadowferal's Avatar
    Op...this thread has more currency; https://www.mmo-champion.com/threads...luation-policy
  1. Mad_Murdock's Avatar
    Back when I worked for HP, they had a similar policy. I found out about it when one year it became my turn to be the problem employee. So I have 9 years of Meets or Exceptional and then became a "Under performing". Before then I didn't even know they had a quota system for X number of employees that had to be in the "needs improvement" category. Apparently that is one way they put pressure on bad managers to not just give everyone a exceptional rating. Seems like the wrong way to solve a problem.

    I'm pretty sure Activision-Blizzard is just one of many companies that use this silly model
  1. Dr Assbandit's Avatar
    Haven't posted on here in ages but this piqued my interest.

    Can someone explain to me as if I'm a 12-yr-old what this policy is as it's the first time I'm learning about it?
  1. Kallisto's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Aggressive View Post
    Blizzard can't help but stay the hell out of the spotlight. They need to get their crap together. Utterly ridiculous
    Reading through it, this seems to be not a Blizzard thing (He seems to have nothing but praise for people at Blizzard itself) but ABK, the Bobby Kotick level of things where no one at Blizzard can really influence. In other areas he's saying this is beyond even above Ybarra too.

    Unfortunately, this seems like a case of capitalism gonna capitalism.
  1. Jester Joe's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Dr Assbandit View Post
    Haven't posted on here in ages but this piqued my interest.

    Can someone explain to me as if I'm a 12-yr-old what this policy is as it's the first time I'm learning about it?
    The gist that I got of it is that even if everyone is going above and beyond in work, a certain percentage of them have to be given a "needs improvement" kinda review, despite that they're already exceeding expectations.

    Quote Originally Posted by Shadowferal View Post
    Op...this thread has more currency; https://www.mmo-champion.com/threads...luation-policy
    It's a news post.
  1. meowfurion's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Kallisto View Post
    Reading through it, this seems to be not a Blizzard thing (He seems to have nothing but praise for people at Blizzard itself) but ABK, the Bobby Kotick level of things where no one at Blizzard can really influence. In other areas he's saying this is beyond even above Ybarra too.

    Unfortunately, this seems like a case of capitalism gonna capitalism.


    Tell us all you don't understand capitalism without telling us all you don't understand capitalism.
  1. BrokenRavens's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Dr Assbandit View Post
    Haven't posted on here in ages but this piqued my interest.

    Can someone explain to me as if I'm a 12-yr-old what this policy is as it's the first time I'm learning about it?
    Let’s pretend you have to give evaluations to 100 people under this system. Five of those people HAVE to get a failing grade, even if they did nothing wrong.

    Those five people effected will be hampered financially.
  1. Alcsaar's Avatar
    Sadly this is the outcome when greedy executives who only care about profits and ratings clash with the people who actually care about the games they're developing and making more profit is not their first priority.
  1. Khaza-R's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Dr Assbandit View Post
    Haven't posted on here in ages but this piqued my interest.

    Can someone explain to me as if I'm a 12-yr-old what this policy is as it's the first time I'm learning about it?
    Basically if you imagine a standard performance evaluation, you're given a rating based on how well you completed your job objectives. In theory, if everyone does well then everyone would get a successful or above.

    In this stacked ranking system, your performance evaluation is based on where you stand in comparison to your coworkers. So even if everyone worked extremely hard and accomplished all of their goals, there's still a "quota" to rate the lowest 5% of employees as a need improvement or unsuccessful. Based on your own company that can mean a reduced or no raise. And potentially fucking you out of any chance for a promotion or job advancement.
  1. Alayea's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Dr Assbandit View Post
    Haven't posted on here in ages but this piqued my interest.

    Can someone explain to me as if I'm a 12-yr-old what this policy is as it's the first time I'm learning about it?
    I had never heard of such an evaluation policy before, myself. From what I've looked up online, it seems akin to grading on a curve like in education... except in reverse? So even if the bottom-most person on the rung did a very good job but others "scored" higher, our hypothetical lamb receives a rank of "problematic" or some equivalent.

    In theory, this is supposed to separate the "chaff" from the cream of the crop, but its execution in reality is something far different.
  1. Kathranis's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by meowfurion View Post
    Tell us all you don't understand capitalism without telling us all you don't understand capitalism.
    Capitalism functions essentially by capital owners exploiting their workers to extract more profit while spending as little of their own money as possible.

    How is this sort of policy not a function of Capitalism?
  1. Zyky's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Stoy View Post
    WoW Classic Lead Developer Leaves Blizzard over Stack-Ranking Policy
    Should fix the title because he was fired, he didn't leave. He threatened the company saying "I won't work until this policy is changed" and was then fired.
  1. ablib's Avatar
    Kudos to this guy. I thought this was just normal. I didn't realize the industry had begun to shift away from this type of performance review. I never had a problem though, because I could always find enough people that needed improving.

    Also, big KUDOS for this guy for FINALLY confirming what we've all known for years with how Activision pressures their business units to deliver, even if it's not ready. I've never understood all the white knights over the years denying how a parent corporation would care about the profits of their business units.
  1. zertul's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by meowfurion View Post
    Tell us all you don't understand capitalism without telling us all you don't understand capitalism.
    Tell us all you don't understand capitalism without telling us all you don't understand capitalism.
  1. Relapses's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Zyky View Post
    Should fix the title because he was fired, he didn't leave. He threatened the company saying "I won't work until this policy is changed" and was then fired.
    Does it matter how he exited the company? The story doesn't change. They could have launched him off the Blizzard premises in a comically large cannon and the story would still have the same impact (Brian's impact less so).
  1. agentsi's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Relapses View Post
    Yet another reason Blizzard should unionize for $1,000, Alex.
    If you think the content and quality of Blizzard games are bad now, wait until after they unionize. I'd bet, any amount of money you want, that in 10-15 years after unionization, they go bankrupt, or Blizzard gets sold away from Activision. 100%. You saw what happened after Microsoft unionized, first step, lay off 10,000 people. Yeah, that will help the company do better right?

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