What you need to know
- Activision-Blizzard is a megapublisher behind Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and Candy Crush.
- A veteran Blizzard developer and key architect for World of Warcraft has resigned in protest of Activision's stack-ranking practices, which sees developers assigned a low-ranking based on a quota system.
- Microsoft used to use stack-ranking, but the practice was dropped due to the negative impact on employee morale and mental health.
Activision-Blizzard (ABK) can't seem to catch a break these days, but a lot of its problems seem self-imposed.
World of Warcraft has had a pretty stunning year. The aging MMO has managed to see something of a turnaround in the past 12 months. World of Warcraft: Dragonflight seems universally loved by its players, after a couple of disappointing expansions. Blizzard also released Wrath of the Lich King for WoW: Classic, which revives the legendary expansion from the MMO's popularity apex. Despite all that success, turmoil within the company is ongoing, as the firm wrestles with lawsuits pertaining to abuse of its staff, the unwieldy Microsoft acquisition, and now, a huge spotlight on one of its most controversial policies.
Brian Birmingham led development on WoW Classic, and has been with the legendary studio since 2006. Since Blizzard's "merger" with Activision, unpopular CEO Bobby Kotick has imposed heavily on the studio, doubtless directly impacting the games themselves. Owing to a report in Bloomberg, and comments from Brian Birmingham himself, we now know about another irritating impact Activision corporate has on Blizzard and other ABK subsidiaries.
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.January 24, 2023
Birmingham explains that Activision uses an odd "stack ranking" system to grade and appraise employees, in what could be described as a dehumanizing attempt to enforce productivity and competition between employees. Birmingham elaborates that these policies are set above current Blizzard lead Mike Ybarra, who doubtless recalls stack-ranking from his tenure at Microsoft. Microsoft itself killed off the practice back in 2013.
The worst aspect of this policy is ABK's implementation of a quota system, which is what directly led to Birmingham's resignation. Regardless of how hard employees have worked, managers have to assign 5% of their teams to a "Developing" rank, which can result in decreased opportunities, decreased pay, and decreased bonuses.
In a testament to Birmingham's integrity, he resigned rather than assign a "developing" status to employees undeserving of the punishment, simply to meet ABK's inflexible, arbitrary quota.
Birmingham's frustration was further laid bare in a Twitter thread, where he discusses how ABK also forced Blizzard to release WoW expansions before they were fully ready. Warcraft players for years at this point have decried how feedback from expansion betas and alphas was ignored. This led to Blizzard having to impose u-turns on major features and post-launch patches to address problems that should've been fixed from the outset. Warcraft III Reforged was also notoriously botched, as ABK nickel-and-dimed the game's production with cheap outsourcing. This is just further proof that these issues were caused by Activision corporate, and not by Blizzard.
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.January 24, 2023
Windows Central's take
The episode is undoubtedly embarrassing for the upper echelons of Activision-Blizzard — assuming that they actually feel human emotions. Warcraft players have suspected for the best part of a decade that Activision is the culprit for WoW's decline. I actually wrote a few articles to that effect in years past. Birmingham's testimony is a direct confirmation that ABK is destroying Blizzard from the outside.
CEO Bobby Kotick has proven himself to be a shrewd businessman, but it has clearly come at a very deep human cost. Under Kotick, Blizzard and other Activision teams have been plagued with controversy stemming from culture problems ignored by ABK's executive layer. Both Blizzard fans, and especially employees, deserve better.
This could be further fuel to the idea that Activision-Blizzard would enjoy a better culture under Xbox, as Microsoft more deeply prioritizes a healthy working environment. As mentioned, Microsoft itself dropped controversial stack-ranking practices all the way back in 2013, in a bid to improve employee morale.
Get the Windows Central Newsletter
All the latest news, reviews, and guides for Windows and Xbox diehards.
Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!