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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. AlexeiPavlov's Avatar
    Just never work for corporations. Easy.

    PS: Not giving Blizzard a penny for several month already.
  1. Feeline10's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Alcsaar View Post
    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.
    Profit is still everyone's first priority from the janitor up to Bobby Kotick - but I believe (naively?) it can be done without terrible tactics like stack-ranking.
  1. Ragedaug's Avatar
    Stacked Ranking = "we don't trust our managers to give honest reviews, so every team gets rated on a scale".

    One of the things I hate most about corporatocrisy. I worked in a large Level 1 team at a support center, where the top 10% got promoted to the Level 2 team, to basically be available to help the folks in the Level 1 team. Every single person on the Level 2 team received the highest evaluations every year they were at Level 1. But now that we got promoted, the bottom 20% of the Level 2 team were going to receive "needs improvement" regardless of how good they performed. And if you get a "needs improvement" 2 years in a row, they put you on an "Improvement Plan", where if you don't show improvement, you get fired...keeping in mind, they would be firing you while knowing you are still a superior employee than the 90% still at Level 1.

    So the rules basically had the managers rotating the "needs improvement" folks every year, so they didn't have to fire anyone, which also made the ranking system completely self defeating. This is what happens when the executives hire folks good at networking, instead of folks good at their job, to management.
  1. meowfurion's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Oneirophobia View Post
    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.

    I see what you're doing.

    You're attributing piss poor management practices to capitalism.

    Sortof like blaming a highway because there are drunk drivers on it.
  1. Zaqwert's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by NED funded View Post
    The firing is prob bad looks but from what Ive read he just straight up stop working? Like I am not sure what he was expecting, you need to drum up some support from your peers if you are going to do something like this.

    Hopefully he can get his job back now that everythings come to light
    I think the stacked ranking system is pretty stupid as well but if you check out this person's twitter bio it's clear he is completely insufferable and probably a gigantic headache to have around. If he wasn't making a big stink about this policy it would be something else. Blizzard is better off without him and he's better off not working for a big corporation, he needs to find something that gels with his "values" better.
  1. bullseyed's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Relapses View Post
    Why do facts matter?
    Because... they do.

    - - - Updated - - -

    Quote Originally Posted by Oneirophobia View Post
    I'd like to see your breakdown on how stack ranking isn't a capitalist thing. It was introduced and coined by Microsoft
    Fake news.

    Stack ranking has received continuous criticism since General Electric popularized it in the 1980s.

    If you don't even know Neutron Jack and GE, chances are you know absolutely nothing about management and business.

    - - - Updated - - -

    Quote Originally Posted by Absintheminded View Post
    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.
    Correct. The issue here is quotas, not stack ranking.

    - - - Updated - - -

    Quote Originally Posted by Eternal2u View Post
    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
    The guy who almost managed to kill WoW.

    Inherited TBC and WotLK and made Cata, Mists and WoD.
  1. Relapses's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by bullseyed View Post
    Because... they do.
    He left Blizzard, what "fact" is being obfuscated here?
  1. Oneirophobia's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by meowfurion View Post
    I see what you're doing.

    You're attributing piss poor management practices to capitalism.
    Ah yes, it is not the ecosystem encouraging and enabling these piss-poor management practices. Perhaps it is the managers themselves who implement evil practices and definitely not in pursuit of capital? I'm sure it's entirely a coincidence.

    Quote Originally Posted by meowfurion View Post
    Sortof like blaming a highway because there are drunk drivers on it.
    No, I'm blaming the system that allows drive-throughs which offer free shots of tequila all along the highway.

    Y'all die-on-this-hill capitalists are getting just as bad as the communists. The "that isn't REAL capitalism!" stuff is getting nuts. Whether we like it or not, this is capitalism and it is definitely the shittiest system we can operate under (just as long we don't compare it to every other system ). We humans are unquenchable assholes and capitalism just isn't designed well enough to accommodate that.

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