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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. Al Gorefiend's Avatar
    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,
    Uh, what? Blizzard had the international spotlight pointed at them at this time proving it was absolutely not a positive culture.
  1. Hctaz's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Jester Joe View Post
    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.
    There's a number of ways people can do this. I've seen companies go from using a metric based system that is like... set in stone (you're expected to perform at this level to be proficient) to removing that system and just saying that everybody is competing with everybody else- there are no metrics that say whether or not you're proficient, the bottom rep in your company is now a problem even if they would have been proficient otherwise.

    Really lame IMO.
  1. Kathranis's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by slickyjohn View Post
    wouldn't a smart capitalist want a system that works well long term?
    lol

    Almost every corporation chases short term profits instead of long term stability because they're pursuing quarterly growth to make the stockholders happy. Every quarter they need more growth than the last.

    None of it is sustainable. That's why inevitably they start cutting wages or laying off workers, raising prices of products, etc., even when turning record profits. Gotta find that growth wherever they can. Make fewer employees do the same amount of work for less pay. Charge more. Add more microtransactions.

    And in the end, when things start going downhill because the product quality starts to suffer, they'll just get acquired by some bigger company, or file for bankruptcy, or get bailed out. And the worthless do-nothing executives will keep their bonuses and if they get fired will get their big juicy severance packages that are baked into their contracts, so they always have a golden parachute even when they're the reason everything went to shit.

    Edit: Just to be clear, this is all good for the capital owner. That's why this kind of thing happens in a capitalist system. They get to reap all the rewards while the workers and customers are carrying the burden. And in the end they'll just move on to another company and repeat the process. The capital owner is the person who benefits in a capitalist system.

    Like, Bobby Kotick, even though he's to blame for a lot of the cultural problems at Blizzard, and it's ultimately his responsibility, he's not really taking a fall. After the merger when he gets ousted, he'll take a $300m buyout and will just go join some other board, get hired as CEO again by another company, or get a massive low interest loan to invest in something else without risking his own hoard of accumulated wealth.
  1. velspine's Avatar
    At this point, it would be smart for RIOT to capitalize on this situation and bring these devs over that are clearly passionate. LoL Lore could be expanded to a turn based tactical system (Baldur's Gate, FF Tactics) and expand the story to an MMO and create a new era of love and care to a game. Sad Sad day.
  1. Lorgar Aurelian's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Al Gorefiend View Post
    Uh, what? Blizzard had the international spotlight pointed at them at this time proving it was absolutely not a positive culture.
    He’s saying that it became positive as they started making some changes when all of that came to light and he thought the positive changes would continue, they did not.
  1. Wrecktangle's Avatar
    I worked for a company that used this "forced developing" nonsense. They strung me along for 1 additional year when they outright came out and said "unfortunately because you are the newest to the team, and as long as your colleagues stay in their roles you'll be marked developing year over year and not be eligible for raises/bonuses."

    I was like so to be clear you're saying that my financial compensation is not tied to my performance, but rather my seniority in the team, and if that never changes (hiring/firing/leaving) I am not eligible for any raises or bonuses.

    They said yes, directive from the CTO. I started applying and had an offer 2 weeks later. I notified my people manager about it and he begged me to stay and said he will talk to the CTO about the issue, and I said no thank you.

    Fun fact, the company went under a while back and they were a VERY large company.
  1. Allstarme's Avatar
    One thing that I don't particularly like because I've seen the consequences firsthand is what he said about them trying to apply uniform policies amongst all three companies. This is something that sounds like a very good idea in practice. I think when it comes to things like benefits, profit sharing, and other examples I can't quite think of this can be good.

    But even profit sharing is tricky. How do you compare profit sharing at one part of the company to another? They aren't the same. Even things like vacation time policies might need to be different. That isn't to say the amount of time should be different. But the policies regarding requests off might not be able to work the same department to department.

    On paper you want to have consistent practices company wide. It looks good when you get in trouble. But sometimes it isn't even best for your employees. My company actually started making us use FMLA in 4 hour increments because we had to use PTO in 4 hour increments. YTO and FMLA are not the same....they are completely different. To compare them is pretty insulting. I'm the type who only needs to use about 1 hour of FMLA at a time. So I ended up having to burn through it all since I couldn't use less than 4 hours a time and lost my job in record time.

    I would probably still work there today if they didn't make that change in the name of making policies consistent.
  1. MoanaLisa's Avatar
    It was an ABK policy, not a Blizzard policy as such, and managers (especially) are never going to be allowed to buck the system too hard. The firing is wrong (I think) but is unsurprising given the circumstances as explained by the lead developer in his twitter thread. It's a very bad thing for morale some when members of a large team who have all performed well are forced into a "bottom 5%" category. The theory behind it is to lose dead wood employees but I do not believe that in reality it works that way and is a detriment to team-building as the team is now forced to compete instead of co-operate. It's just destructive of the kind of thing that makes teams excel. It also leads to moronic, outdated metrics like comparing lines of code created. All that happens there is you end up with bloated, inefficient code.

    Come to think of it, the way WoW has introduced and doubled-down on competitive over co-operative aspects in PVE, perhaps it's karma.
  1. Nymrohd's Avatar
    The thing I don't get is, ABK is under the process of being acquired and the parent company to my knowledge has tried this policy and rescinded relatively swiftly cause the outcomes on productivity were largely negative. Why implement it if it will be taken out soon after?
  1. kranur's Avatar
    Shocking ... turning women to fruit, renaming genders in their titles and making a few blog posts did not solve the toxic work culture.
    Rank stacking sounds like such a retarded concept, like if you have a great team why the hell would you want to just shaft some of its members and only allow a few of them to be successful? It's not like not using it doesn't allow you to give negative performance reviews where applicable.
    On another hand, leaving Blizzard is probably not even a bad thing, especially after the management failures of classic which he can partially pin on blizz forcing releases of unfinished products, which is probably true anyway.
  1. Rageonit's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by slickyjohn View Post
    wouldn't a smart capitalist want a system that works well long term?
    If you run your own business, yes.

    But corporations often aren't run by the actual owners. The owners are the stockholders, who may know nothing about running a business; and the business is ran instead by a CEO assigned by the board. So the person that has an actual influence on how the business is working is someone who can be fired at any point in time and replaced by a new CEO (and being a CEO is a rather lucrative job). It doesn't take a genius to predict what will happen next. The CEO will work the employees into the ground to show growth for as long as possible. It doesn't matter that it's unsustainable for a long period of time, because the guy is there to cash in; he's not the company owner and doesn't care two shits what will happen with the company when he gets his severance pay and fucks off to Bahamas.
  1. kamuimac's Avatar
    oh no - all CSRs are nothing but marketing and PR ?

    who would have guessed

    they all knew the name of the game - corporations are ruthless machines but they pay you like double or tripple what small companies do.

    so every corporate worker shoudl work on his "Exit trategy " the moment he signes for work there.

    2-3 years and swapping jobs - that should be norm - we are long past era of working for one company for liek 15-20 years.

    you can see that boomers dont understand it.

    - - - Updated - - -

    Quote Originally Posted by Rageonit View Post
    If you run your own business, yes.

    But corporations often aren't run by the actual owners. The owners are the stockholders, who may know nothing about running a business; and the business is ran instead by a CEO assigned by the board. So the person that has an actual influence on how the business is working is someone who can be fired at any point in time and replaced by a new CEO (and being a CEO is a rather lucrative job). It doesn't take a genius to predict what will happen next. The CEO will work the employees into the ground to show growth for as long as possible. It doesn't matter that it's unsustainable for a long period of time, because the guy is there to cash in; he's not the company owner and doesn't care two shits what will happen with the company when he gets his severance pay and fucks off to Bahamas.
    small business operate exackly like this too. you just dont see it because if johnny the small business owner who employes like 10 people fires 1 person nobody cares

    but when a corporation which employes 200 000 people (and with contractors probably like 400-500k ) reduces 6 % ofc its visible when like 12k people instantly looses their jobs.

    we are in global recession - we are in one for last 2 years you just didnt feel it because IT companies were ripping benefits from covid and remote work .

    now recession is in full swing and everyone can loose their job.

    as someone who has been laying of people for years now because thats also part of my job - everyone is shocked and devastated when it happens to them . i would be devastated too even though i have really nice "golden parachute" ready for when it happens. still it would without doubt suck.
  1. Azerox's Avatar
    Blizz as a corp is just cancer it seems...
  1. kamuimac's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by MoanaLisa View Post
    It was an ABK policy, not a Blizzard policy as such, and managers (especially) are never going to be allowed to buck the system too hard. The firing is wrong (I think) but is unsurprising given the circumstances as explained by the lead developer in his twitter thread. It's a very bad thing for morale some when members of a large team who have all performed well are forced into a "bottom 5%" category. The theory behind it is to lose dead wood employees but I do not believe that in reality it works that way and is a detriment to team-building as the team is now forced to compete instead of co-operate. It's just destructive of the kind of thing that makes teams excel. It also leads to moronic, outdated metrics like comparing lines of code created. All that happens there is you end up with bloated, inefficient code.

    Come to think of it, the way WoW has introduced and doubled-down on competitive over co-operative aspects in PVE, perhaps it's karma.
    ye never have all employees performing "equaly well" or "equaly competent"

    thats just nonsense of people who never had to manage people.

    he just clearly wasnt fit for the job if he just wanted to give everyone A grade or 5 grade or whatever they use. this just shows he was dishonest with his yearly review.

    - - - Updated - - -

    Quote Originally Posted by Azerox View Post
    Blizz as a corp is just cancer it seems...
    every corp is " cancer" - more so - most of jobs peopel do are "cancer"

    you are not there to have fun time or to spend time with your buddies. you are there to work .

    so work - log off and focus on your life.

    work is just work - its meant to give you money .

    and always look for new / better job . after 2-3 years on your position if you wont move up you have to just change companies.
  1. Shadowferal's Avatar
    And still we're given reasons why unions should still exist...
  1. Alkizon's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by MoanaLisa View Post
    Come to think of it, the way WoW has introduced and doubled-down on competitive over co-operative aspects in PVE, perhaps it's karma.
    Made me a light smile...
  1. Osmeric's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Wrecktangle View Post
    Fun fact, the company went under a while back and they were a VERY large company.
    I'm curious now -- which company was that?

    - - - Updated - - -

    Quote Originally Posted by MoanaLisa View Post
    Come to think of it, the way WoW has introduced and doubled-down on competitive over co-operative aspects in PVE, perhaps it's karma.
    The evolution of WoW can be understood as the developers stack ranking the players.
  1. sam86's Avatar
    guess that's the last nail in coffin, if anyone ever doubted that Bobby Kodick hates video games this is the proof
    The only 'new' info here it is that entire leaderboard are copy-paste versions of Kodick, he isn't different, he is just under spotlight, and unless an actual fresh blood come (like Metzen or Mike) get in power and actually control blizz, forget it, blizz will stay activision bitch existed only to be milked out of IP until it is dry
  1. vincink's Avatar
    I like how the replies go from a half-page of commenting on the original article plus some genuine back-and-forth to attacks on capitalism, social justice, and ad hominem provocations. Never change, MMO Champion. Never change.
  1. Eternal2u's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by velspine View Post
    At this point, it would be smart for RIOT to capitalize on this situation and bring these devs over that are clearly passionate. LoL Lore could be expanded to a turn based tactical system (Baldur's Gate, FF Tactics) and expand the story to an MMO and create a new era of love and care to a game. Sad Sad day.
    Theres already a LoL mmo in the works and its the most excited ive been for one in a long long time. Greg Street is actually the lead on it as well

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