Patch 10.0.5 Live This Week

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. Oneirophobia'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.
    I'd like to see your breakdown on how stack ranking isn't a capitalist thing. It was introduced and coined by Microsoft as a way to rotate out perfectly adequate or even excellent high-performing employees who have "over" stayed long enough to earn better pay and/or benefits. You can't (usually) get away with canning a great employee under the justification that you're paying them too much in benefits or they've earned too high of a pay without legal trouble and/or chasing away new hires who may be applying specifically to work towards the higher pay or the benefits.
    Stack ranking allows you to "bell curve" out your highest earners/longest running employees under the guise of arbitrary stats you get to make up per eval (depending on policy). Even if all your employees perform ahead of everybody else in their whole field, you still get to apply the ol' "well we have 8 slots for perfection and 2 slots for 'getting fired', so naturally we will place our highest earners in the bottom so we can get rid of them". This also encourages the "hire to fire" mindset among managers who will literally keep 2 (or more, depending) slots on rotate in their teams so they can keep their competent or preferred members and axe two randoms each evaluation cycle - IE soft neopotism. On top of that, it turns teams into viper pits where employees don't have to "outrun the bear", they just have to "outrun their coworkers" - leads to all sorts of nasty project sabotage, reporting, team-ruining behavior in the name of job salvation.

    Stack ranking is 100% a capitalist wet dream. It also doesn't work in the long run, which is another direct hint about its nature.
  1. Relapses's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by OrangeJuice View Post
    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.
    If you're so horny for capitalism that you consider exposing a degenerate, dehumanizing system like stack-ranking "dirty laundry" then yeah. But back here in the real world, most rational people can see the obvious problems with this system and (rightfully) laud his efforts to bring attention to it. Not many people are willing to give up their livelihood and a job they seem to love based solely on a principle. I do not foresee him having any difficulty at all finding work in the games industry after this. (Also, might want to check your reading comprehension because this system was only implemented in 2021.)
  1. Jester Joe's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Relapses View Post
    Also, might want to check your reading comprehension because this system was only implemented in 2021.
    And to tack onto that if I'm understanding the situation right, they didn't enforce it until this year either.
  1. Absintheminded's Avatar
    Stacked ranking isn't necessarily the problem, it's the fact that there has to be a certain number of unders performing employees. It's asinine and arbitrary. And greedy. F ABK still in 2023.
  1. Xorzor's Avatar
    Blizzard are scumbag losers who deserve lethal and unmerciful punishment for firing someone who wouldn't dehumanise other employees all for some arbitrary nonsense. I actually want Dragonflight to fail now. It will be hilarious to see their flagship game crash and burn again.
  1. Osmeric'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?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitality_curve
  1. ParanoiD84's Avatar
    Not surprised at all anymore after all that's happened. Good for him though.
  1. Biomega's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Hitei View Post
    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.
    That's still in the analogy. Nobody said he couldn't protest, just not in THAT AREA.

    Same here - they didn't say he couldn't protest, just that he couldn't protest by not working. If you want to change the protest analogy to more closely match this, you can; in fact there's plenty of real-world examples for this in topless protesting. Which is exactly this: they can protest, just not in that way. And rather than putting their shirts back on (and continuing their protest) they often choose to be arrested instead to make a statement.
  1. slickyjohn's Avatar
    "Straight white male. Feminist. LGBTQIA ally. He/Him. BLM."

    this makes him sound like a virtue signaller, but blizzard is still dying.
  1. Teucer'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?
    Damn why you hate unions so much, hate people not being exploited by companies?

    hilarious if you think that 300 employees unionizing at a Microsoft game studio led to them firing 10,000 unrelated people
  1. Daedius's Avatar
    "Leaves" ? Fired, no?
  1. slickyjohn's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Oneirophobia View Post
    Stack ranking is 100% a capitalist wet dream. It also doesn't work in the long run, which is another direct hint about its nature.
    wouldn't a smart capitalist want a system that works well long term?
  1. ONCHEhap's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by slickyjohn View Post
    wouldn't a smart capitalist want a system that works well long term?
    That's not how it works in practice. Shareholders want maximum profit in the shortest term possible. Doesn't matter if it ruins everything in the long run as they can just leave and go do the same somewhere else. That's quite literally how the entire economic system of the western world (the US especially) is designed
  1. Toshirouu's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by ONCHEhap View Post
    That's not how it works in practice. Shareholders want maximum profit in the shortest term possible. Doesn't matter if it ruins everything in the long run as they can just leave and go do the same somewhere else. That's quite literally how the entire economic system of the western world (the US especially) is designed
    Just to tack on to this point, its not limited to grubby rich shareholders. A lot of people see this as just people piling on the eat the rich sentiment and dismiss it.

    If anyone puts stock in something, even if it's not their expectation, they know the best thing that could happen is that stock swell up in price and they sell big. If that company crashes after.. see above's point. Whether you invest 100 bucks, or represent a collection of rich people who put billions in. It's all the same principal.
  1. Logwyn'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.
    People think that companies are some benevolent entity that is less corrupt and looking out for everyone when in fact if it were a government. We be calling them totalitarians regimes that need to be stopped.
  1. Hitei's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Biomega View Post
    That's still in the analogy. Nobody said he couldn't protest, just not in THAT AREA.

    Same here - they didn't say he couldn't protest, just that he couldn't protest by not working. If you want to change the protest analogy to more closely match this, you can; in fact there's plenty of real-world examples for this in topless protesting. Which is exactly this: they can protest, just not in that way. And rather than putting their shirts back on (and continuing their protest) they often choose to be arrested instead to make a statement.
    He didn't choose to be fired to make a statement though, his opening sentence was to flat out state that he hadn't intended to make the situation public, but other places heard about it and started making it a statement, so then he felt the need to clarify things, including that he didn't even really agree with the dumb "martyrdom" strategy and would rather still be employed and protesting from inside.

    He didn't put the shirt back on because he didn't feel comfortable wearing it, not because it was statement.

    Quote Originally Posted by Logwyn View Post
    People think that companies are some benevolent entity that is less corrupt and looking out for everyone when in fact if it were a government. We be calling them totalitarians regimes that need to be stopped.
    Because if it were a government they'd be operating via laws and actually forcing people to do things under threat of violence or penal punishment. If you could just choose not to follow a government's mandates the way that you can just choose not to buy a company's products or work for them, far fewer people would take issue with problematic regimes. The key word there is totalitarian.
  1. Biomega's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Hitei View Post
    He didn't choose to be fired to make a statement though, his opening sentence was to flat out state that he hadn't intended to make the situation public
    Doesn't have to be an explicit statement to be a statement. Actions speak, too, whether we intend them to or not. I'm sure his goal wasn't to publicly broadcast this - but that isn't required for someone to be making a statement with their actions. Even if he wasn't SAYING IN PUBLIC "I value my integrity more than my job", that's what his actions EFFECTIVELY communicated.
  1. slickyjohn's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by ONCHEhap View Post
    That's not how it works in practice. Shareholders want maximum profit in the shortest term possible. Doesn't matter if it ruins everything in the long run as they can just leave and go do the same somewhere else. That's quite literally how the entire economic system of the western world (the US especially) is designed
    fuck the shareholders then. if you look at the really successful companies, they set themselves up for the long game.
    would you rather own shares of a company that goes for a quick buck or shares of a company that is building a monster?
  1. diller's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Zyky View Post
    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.
    What he did MAKES him a martyr, do you even know what the word means?

    He died (got fired) for a cause that he wouldn't back down on - in fact if he had left on his own he wouldn't have been a martyr.
  1. mbit2's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Hitei View Post
    Because if it were a government they'd be operating via laws and actually forcing people to do things under threat of violence or penal punishment. If you could just choose not to follow a government's mandates the way that you can just choose not to buy a company's products or work for them, far fewer people would take issue with problematic regimes. The key word there is totalitarian.
    The difference is superficial. Companies exist as they are due government laws. The requirement to profit minmax came from government as court ruled in favor on a lawsuit of one car company (forgot who) against ford who didn't minmax profit and gave better worker benefits because he thought it would ultimately pay back more in long run. So instead of competing they simply used government to force regulations upon everyone demanding to squeeze their workers dry.

Site Navigation