WoW Factor: Brian Birmingham’s ousting and the ever-deepening rot at Blizzard

Nothing else has worked.

Talking about this company is always so exhausting, but let’s do a quick recap: Brian Birmingham was, up until recently, one of the top software engineers at Blizzard working on the classic version of World of Warcraft¬†as its technical lead. He was pretty well liked, which means somehow people had apparently forgotten his responses to this, but that’s not the main point. He was forced out not over questionable design decisions but over refusing to inflict a performance-ranking system with toxic methodology on the WoW Classic team.

Birmingham took to Twitter to elaborate after the story broke, and his insight in the thread is incredibly informative of the mess that is in place at Blizzard. It’s a sign of how bad things actually are there and how bad they will remain no matter what happens next, and the only reason that it’s not a giant red flag is that it mostly serves as a reminder for all of the existing red flags that are already waving around Blizzard. And it’s all exacerbated by the fact that Birmingham places the blame squarely on someone else… which is both probably true and also indicative of other problems.

First and foremost, I encourage everyone to read the entirety of Birmingham’s thread and acknowledge – as Birmingham does himself – that his own recollections of events may or may not be entirely accurate. Birmingham makes a point of saying several times that he is not sure of the origin point of the ranking policy, just that it it appears to come from above the studio heads (explicitly from someone above Blizzard boss Mike Ybarra) and that it is in no small part a product of leadership at Activision-Blizzard as a whole. I do not doubt this in the slightest.

It is also worth noting that Birmingham specifically cites increased control from ABK leadership, something that I mentioned back when the original scandals that led to the sacrificial ousting of J. Allen Brack from his leadership role. I spilled a lot of words about how that was the moment when Blizzard’s independence would start to erode because it kind of had to. Corporate was clearly applying a heavier hand, and while that could’ve potentially had a positive impact on WoW, it was always a poisoned chalice at best that would be based more on accidental convergence than on positive events.

All true, and all plausible. If I take issue with any part of Birmingham’s letter, it’s the sort of thing that’s expressed in this quote right here:

“I hope Blizzard’s positive culture can overcome ABK’s poison, but it isn’t succeeding in doing that yet.”

Are you for real, guy.

This statement comes alongside Birmingham’s acknowledgement of the fact that ABK took greater control over its subsidiary in the wake of sexual harassment lawsuit, but the implication is that the control takeover was merely incidental. “Big Mean ABK gave us a Big Mean Policy, but we were innocent before! Don’t look at the hideous ways Blizzard itself treated its own people since before WoW released, though.”

Cynically, yes, I know this is the position that makes sense for him to take. It doesn’t really track for him to say that Blizzard was a bad studio being overseen by a worse company; it serves neither his own standing nor his clear aim to praise the former co-workers he actually wants to champion here. But it is a baffling sign of trying to deflect responsibility from Blizzard to Activision, a sort of larger-scale version of what people have been trying to do for years as part of the narrative that ABK is responsible for everything bad about Blizzard and Blizzard is pure and good and has done no wrong.

This is a myth that’s been present in the WoW fan community for years. And seriously, it is not good. It does not need to be something you repeat. The policy that Birmingham was opposing is actually monstrous and terrible. He was doing the right thing to protest it. But he is fighting against not a sudden and unexpected takeover but a gradual push of increased influence because the studio was already doing monstrous and terrible things. At some point you need to actually reckon with the fact that Blizzard has been just awful, in spite of all the people like Birmingham who are apparently trying to fight it from within (and apparently aren’t winning).

That sucks. It’s unpleasant. And it’s really unsettling to think that above and beyond questions about poor design decisions, at the end of the day there’s a problem named Blizzard. It’s not going away, it’s not getting better, and at best it’s going to tell you that things are improving as everything stays the same.

Oh no.

Folks, at some point you have to just accept that things are not getting better. Fixes are not coming. Microsoft is not going to ride in over the horizon and fix everything. Yes, it is reasonable to say that Microsoft might overule this policy (as it’s already done within its own walls), and it’s reasonable to note that Microsoft has been significantly more union- and worker-friendly than ABK. But let’s not forget that Microsoft also spent the start of the year laying people off, and if you’ve never worked in a field where you had the constant threat of layoffs hanging over your head, let me just tell you that it is not conducive to doing good work.

I am no happier to write this than you are to read it. I’ve written numerous pieces about the positive impact WoW has had on me over the last two decades, and it’s a staple MMO for me in spite of my frustrations. But as I read through Birmingham’s thread, what I’m seeing is not a case where a once-beloved studio is now being cruelly victimized by its parent corporation. I’m seeing a bad studio run by a worse corporation, and the “salvation” is another corporation coming in and hopefully removing at least that awful corporation so that whatever is left is at least moderately better.

This doesn’t fill me with confidence or hope or good wishes.

And yes, I think Birmingham is going to be just fine. He’s a dedicated dev with a history of solid launches and a lot of genuine talent, and he clearly cares about his team to the point that he was the only one to stand up for his co-workers and the game itself at the extreme cost of his own employment (while other Blizzard leads apparently objected, they apparently went along with corporate in the end and kept their jobs). I think that any decent studio that hires him will be happy to have him, and I am confident he’ll land on his feet.

But the fact that it was easier for his bosses to cut him loose than hold fast in protest or face the wrath of upper management says a lot about the trajectory Blizzard is on, too. Whether you like the work he did or not, when it’s easier to fire a team lead protesting an obviously toxic policy than it is to re-examine the policy, you are moving away from any level of creative control in the company, and it bodes well for neither the workers nor the games.

This is sadly just one of the many, many self-inflicted wounds that WoW has been hobbled by over the past few years. In one way, that makes it less notable. But the fact that it is in some way less notable in and of itself is a notable change. And it’s not a positive one if you want a future where WoW or Blizzard grows in a creative and positive direction.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with almost two decades of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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