WoW Classic just lost its team lead Brian Birmingham over Blizzard’s toxic evaluation system

Brian Birmingham fired for refusing to screw over fellow devs

    
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Fine, whatever.

Blizzard has apparently opted to pick yet another pointless fight that makes it look absolutely terrible, this time with well-liked World of Warcraft Classic dev Brian Birmingham.

According to fresh reporting on Bloomberg, Blizzard employs “stack ranking” to rate workers on a curve – meaning some staff are ranked as “poor” during evaluations even if they’re great workers, which naturally affects their compensation and promotions (and is also, you know, extremely dishonest). The company has apparently not enforced that policy until recently, at which point Birmingham – one of the leads for WoW Classic – revolted after being forced to do it.

“When team leads asked why we had to do this, World of Warcraft directors explained that while they did not agree, the reasons given by executive leadership were that it was important to squeeze the bottom-most performers as a way to make sure everybody continues to grow,” he told his team by email, noting that execs had asked him not to discuss the system as he did it anyway. “This sort of policy encourages competition between employees, sabotage of one another’s work, a desire for people to find low-performing teams that they can be the best-performing worker on, and ultimately erodes trust and destroys creativity.”

When Birmingham (and “several directors and leads” on the WoW team) requested to mark their own performance as poor rather than their innocent colleagues’, the company bosses refused. In his letter, he declared that he wouldn’t work on the game until the policy was retracted, thereby threatening to resign. But Blizzard management chose to fire him, leaving the WoW Classic team short one of its most public-facing devs.

As Bloomberg notes, while stack ranking is employed at some tech companies, its obvious toxicity has led others to abandon it – including Microsoft, which is still angling to finish its purchase of Activision-Blizzard this summer.

Activision-Blizzard was already having a miserable week; literally today, all but one of Blizzard’s games, including WoW, closed down in China thanks to Blizzard’s and NetEase’s inability to agree on partnership terms. ABK’s Q4 financials are due in just two weeks, and we’re guessing it’s not going to be pretty.

Best of luck to Birmingham, who’s sure to land at a good studio in no time.

Source: Bloomberg. Cheers, Vanquesse and Leiloni!
Activision-Blizzard is considered a controversial gaming company owing to a long string of scandals over the last few years, including the Blitzchung boycott, mass layoffs, labor disputes, and executive pay fiasco. In 2021, the company was sued by California for fostering a work environment rife with sexual harassment and discrimination, the disastrous corporate response to which compounded Blizzard’s ongoing pipeline issues and the widespread perception that its online games are in decline. Multiple state and federal agencies are investigating the company as employees unionize and call for Bobby Kotick’s resignation. As of 2023, the company is being acquired by no less than Microsoft.
Update
After Bloomberg’s piece went live, Birmingham released a public statement on Twitter. Notably, he says he’d return if allowed in order to fight the policy; he says the policy came from “above Mike Ybarra,” that the first year for the ranking quota was in 2020, that Blizzard fought it (and devs thought they’d won), and that ABK forced Wrath Classic and Dragonflight out early.

“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. […] 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.”

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