Blizzard’s Mike Ybarra stuns devs with demoralizing bonus-slashing and return-to-work meeting

Gee, wonder why 'our mentors are leaving in droves'

    
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We have Thanos at home.

Earlier this week, we noted that Activision-Blizzard was preparing to end more of its COVID-induced work-from-home policies and that some of its studios that had previously opted out were now planning to follow suit. Apparently, that includes Blizzard.

GameDeveloper.com has a lengthy recap of a surprise meeting at Blizzard run by president Mike Ybarra yesterday, during which Ybarra announced a mandated partial return to office and that workers will not receive their full profit-sharing bonus, seeing it slashed by almost half in spite of Activision’s recent quarter (and Blizzard’s large contribution toward it). Ybarra also apparently blew off the recent ousting of Brian Birmingham, who’d openly criticized the company for its toxic stack-ranking system.

“Ybarra allegedly made a bizarre comparison to his and other executives’ pay packages to those of rank-and-file employees, appeared to downplay the value of QA and customer service roles at the studio, and defended the company’s decision to slash annual profit-sharing bonuses,” GameDeveloper.com reports. “If you think that executives are making a lot of money and you aren’t, you’re living in a myth,” he told workers. As GD notes, some Irvine QA make as little as $22 an hour ($45,000 annually), so it’s unclear why Ybarra would suggest otherwise because we’re quite certain he’s not making merely $45,000 a year.

Moreover, some current Blizzard employees were hired as remote employees and live offsite, and Blizzard’s long-talked-about poor wages, coupled with a reduction in the bonus that is supposed to buffer those wages, won’t pay for relocation to or cost-of-living in the expensive Irvine location. Blizzard workers at the meeting apparently pointed out that the move will result in talent losses that have already been ongoing and well-documented for the last several years, which Ybarra apparently dismissed by suggesting that some roles aren’t long-term roles anyway and that people need to do what will make them happy, i.e., if you don’t like to work in-office, you should leave.

(One might point out to Mike Ybarra that treating QA workers as low-skilled transient roles who can be underpaid, overworked, stiffed bonuses, and dismissed on a whim for not wanting to move to Irvine and catch COVID is probably why Blizzard’s roster of games has picked up a reputation over the last few years for being bug-ridden messes. But one digresses.)

As GameDeveloper.com notes, one Blizzard worker characterized the meeting as “the most demoralizing one they’d witnessed since J. Allen Brack made his final internal comments before he departed the company in 2021.” The overall takeaway for workers is that the illusion that Activision was the big mean parent company calling all the big mean shots – an impression Brian Birmingham himself bizarrely repeated just a few weeks ago – has finally been shattered within the studio, not just without it. The calls are coming from inside the house, albeit from an executive installed by Activision.

Incidentally, Blizzard isn’t backing down on any of Ybarra’s utterances. “Blizzard stands by each of these statements and we’re proud of Mike’s leadership in tough moments,” a spokesperson said, adding salt to the wound.

Of course, for MMO developers and support staff, Blizzard isn’t the only game in town – and the town ain’t what it used to be. Quite a few MMO companies have expressed significant support for work-from-home and hybrid work, including Bungie, ZeniMax, Cryptic, and ArenaNet, the last of which was named our MMO studio of the year for the last two years. In fact, ArenaNet boss Josh Davis cheekily tweeted as much last night, as the Guild Wars 2 team is hiring and aiming to grow throughout 2023.

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.
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