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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 103 Comments
  1. Wallmaker Yahzarah's Avatar
    A very crappy, systematic game. Good for him to speak out about but the Stack-Ranking has a pro to its crappiness. It combats nepotism and friends' promoting friends. The military has a similar "system" when recommending for promotion. Or better yet, their way of recommendations for promotions.
  1. Doombringer's Avatar
    This sort of corporate game-playing sickens me. Employees should be reviewed fairly, and plainly. If they meet goals, they meet goals. If they exceed, they exceed. There should be no quotas. If someone underperforms they should have chances to step up, but if not, they get let go. If someone goes above and beyond they should be recognized. THIS IS A SIMPLE SYSTEM.

    Leave it to ABK management to muck it up. It's gross what has happened to what was one of the titans of the industry. They fuck up and try to bury the rampant deviancy crawling through the company and just when you think they've cleaned that up and maybe made a non-hostile work environment... they pull this bullshit.
  1. Relapses's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by agentsi View Post
    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?
    Look man, I'm not saying unions are the silver bullet solution to all of gaming's problems. I'm well aware of the pitfalls of unions as I've had firsthand experience with them. But the games industry has been famously under-unionized from the get go and look where we're at right now. It would, at the very least, help prevent bad applications of capitalism from causing people who love their jobs to walk away from the company.
  1. Nymrohd's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Kathranis View Post
    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?
    In that it is ineffective and will not actually generate more profit for the capital owners. It is only a faction of capitalism in that it is probably largely a method to depress wages and also to manipulate wage growth to fit a formula but this is more an indictment of bureaucracy than of capitalism to be honest. Not saying capitalism is not problematic but I don't think that is the perverse incentive here; arbitrary organizational restrictions are a feature of the latter, not the former.

    - - - Updated - - -

    Quote Originally Posted by Wallmaker Yahzarah View Post
    A very crappy, systematic game. Good for him to speak out about but the Stack-Ranking has a pro to its crappiness. It combats nepotism and friends' promoting friends. The military has a similar "system" when recommending for promotion. Or better yet, their way of recommendations for promotions.
    ? Managers will just give favorable reviews to their own and unfavorables to everyone else.
  1. Zyky's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Relapses View Post
    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).
    There's a big difference between "leaving because of a policy" and "being fired for threatening not to work because of a policy"
  1. ketsui's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by BrokenRavens View Post
    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.
    I rarely post here but I worked for a game company before where we had such a limited budget for raises due to not making enough money (for more than the CEO to line his pockets) that they didn't give me a raise even though I did outstanding, I read my review and it was complete and utter BS like 'needs improvement' etc when I was so eager and so were others. I get what this is like and it hurts, its usually because the lions share of wealth goes into the already rich peoples pockets. This really is frustrating but its common place in industries. Luckily I don't work for game companies anymore, sucks for the people who do
  1. wiforkle's Avatar
    Not surprising. Can we get an early life check on Bobby Kotick, please?
  1. arkanon's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Wallmaker Yahzarah View Post
    A very crappy, systematic game. Good for him to speak out about but the Stack-Ranking has a pro to its crappiness. It combats nepotism and friends' promoting friends. The military has a similar "system" when recommending for promotion. Or better yet, their way of recommendations for promotions.
    These two issues are completely unrelated. How do you think they are linked at all?
  1. Shadowferal's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by agentsi View Post
    If you think the content and quality of Blizzard games are bad now, wait until after they unionize.
    You can predict the future? A pity you couldn't predict the company's shitty expansions.
  1. Drutt's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Wallmaker Yahzarah View Post
    A very crappy, systematic game. Good for him to speak out about but the Stack-Ranking has a pro to its crappiness. It combats nepotism and friends' promoting friends. The military has a similar "system" when recommending for promotion. Or better yet, their way of recommendations for promotions.
    How does it combat nepotism when said favored employee can be put at the top of the stack by the person favouring them and reap the lion's share of the rewards at the expense of those at the bottom, who might be doing perfectly good work?
  1. Relapses's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Zyky View Post
    There's a big difference between "leaving because of a policy" and "being fired for threatening not to work because of a policy"
    Functionally, I don't see a difference. The guy took a stand; they yeeted him because Activision values policy above employee stewardship. I don't necessarily agree with the way he did it but saying he "got fired" doesn't diminish the story or the reasons he ultimately *ahem* left Blizzard.
  1. nToxik's Avatar
    Sadly, this is how my company does it. They also use the 'Bell Curve' for year-end performance ratings.
  1. Zyky's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Relapses View Post
    Functionally, I don't see a difference. The guy took a stand; they yeeted him because Activision values policy above employee stewardship. I don't necessarily agree with the way he did it but saying he "got fired" doesn't diminish the story or the reasons he ultimately *ahem* left Blizzard.
    It's disingenuous to say that he left though because it makes him sound like a martyr, where in reality he threatened the company, they fired him, he took a 180 and tried to say he would like to be rehired to fight it from the inside.
  1. Biomega's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Relapses View Post
    Functionally, I don't see a difference. The guy took a stand; they yeeted him because Activision values policy above employee stewardship. I don't necessarily agree with the way he did it but saying he "got fired" doesn't diminish the story or the reasons he ultimately *ahem* left Blizzard.
    I agree and disagree, to an extent. There's definitely a difference here. He likely knew this was a futile effort - one employee holding his breath is unlikely to get a multi-million-dollar company to fold. But it's a STATEMENT that he'd rather get fired than quit. It puts the onus on Blizzard for saying "we value our policy more than our people", and emphasis the fact that he has convictions even in the face of an ultimate consequence.

    It's the difference between a protest leader going home when the police asks to clear the area, and them sticking around to get forcibly removed. Yeah sure they "left the area" in both cases, but there's very significant implications to the how and when it happened.
  1. Mace's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Wallmaker Yahzarah View Post
    A very crappy, systematic game. Good for him to speak out about but the Stack-Ranking has a pro to its crappiness. It combats nepotism and friends' promoting friends. The military has a similar "system" when recommending for promotion. Or better yet, their way of recommendations for promotions.
    There are other ways to combat unfair nepotism. The ranking system is manipulative and abusive. And it has a knock down efffect long term that will affect the productivity it claims to increase.
  1. Hitei's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Biomega View Post
    It's the difference between a protest leader going home when the police asks to clear the area, and them sticking around to get forcibly removed. Yeah sure they "left the area" in both cases, but there's very significant implications to the how and when it happened.
    The issue with this poor metaphor is that it ignores the protest leader had the option to stick around and keep protesting rather than being arrested, something he openly admits to in his tweet.
  1. cozzri's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by agentsi View Post
    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?
    Let's be honest, Blizzard hasn't been an innovative studio in 20 years;. Upon the success of WoW, corporate culture has been spreading it's tendrils into every aspect of the company like the Old Gods. The game quality relies heavily on the passion of the developers wiring and coding the game; the products we get from the company now is a reflection of the climate and work culture. Better working conditions / environment is a huge boon to game development. Unfortunately, unionization will do very little if corporate management continues to fight back, retaliate, belittle with metrics. Maybe the union can shield the workers from such practices?
  1. Zeek Daniels's Avatar
    The company i work for does this. I was a manager for almost two years and and had to go over reviews with HR before giving them to employees. We couldnt give too many high ratings and couldnt give too many averages. Some people who i thought deserved high ratings got bumped to average and some who were average got bumped to needs improvement.
  1. OrangeJuice's Avatar
    This guy is never going to find another job in the industry if he airs out dirty laundry when fired. The idiot had 15 years to open up and spill all and only waited to get back out of spite. Fuck blizzard and this guy in particular.
  1. Alvito's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Doombringer View Post
    This sort of corporate game-playing sickens me. Employees should be reviewed fairly, and plainly. If they meet goals, they meet goals. If they exceed, they exceed. There should be no quotas. If someone underperforms they should have chances to step up, but if not, they get let go. If someone goes above and beyond they should be recognized. THIS IS A SIMPLE SYSTEM.

    Leave it to ABK management to muck it up. It's gross what has happened to what was one of the titans of the industry. They fuck up and try to bury the rampant deviancy crawling through the company and just when you think they've cleaned that up and maybe made a non-hostile work environment... they pull this bullshit.
    It is very common with large companies. With so many teams stretched globally they try to come up with some sort of metric to measure or assign quality work and employees. I have sat in on far too many meetings as we all fight for our employees to be ranked at one tier and based on that tier deserve "x" compensation. Easily one of my least favorite parts of the job and why I cannot wait to retire or go out on my own again.

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