WoW Classic Lead Developer Leaves Blizzard over Stack-Ranking Policy


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Jul 16, 2009
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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

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