back to article World of Warcraft Classic lead dev resigns to protest 'stack ranking'

Former Blizzard World of Warcraft co-lead dev Brian Birmingham took to Twitter this morning to confirm that when given a choice between stack ranking his employees – obeying a mandate to give a poor "developing" rank to an employee – or leaving the company, he decided to walk. Extracts of Birmingham's emails to colleagues …

  1. Snake Silver badge

    [Blizzard] said it had "nothing to share.". '

    A wonderful new take on "We deny confirming, but also deny denying".

    In actuality, it is more "We probably have something damning but [can't / won't] share it publicly."


    I'm terribly sorry to notify you Blizzard, but the rest of the world already knows you are just a bunch of egotistical scum. Trying to deny it by staying mum won't help you at this stage.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Sharing is caring

      ... and we don't care.

      1. Reaps

        Re: Sharing is caring

        as long as our upper bosses are not included in stack ranking and are allowed to swim in the money pit

  2. redpawn

    I wonder

    what the PowerPoint presentation to management promised. Simple answers to complex problems seldom turn out as planned.

    1. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: I wonder

      I'm guessing there were five slides as follows:

      Slide 1: Graph of GE's market cap by year, ending before it had that whole economic collapse deal. Caption: "Would you like this?" Hidden note to presenter: "Stopped ranking in 2016 after these people graduated management classes that could tell them why"

      Slide 2: Graph of big companies in the stock market showing Microsoft as biggest or second biggest. Caption: "Learn how they got this way" Note to presenter: "Hope these people don't know that Microsoft stopped doing this a decade ago."

      Slide 3: Diagram of stack ranking of a large team with extra notes, for example "Sold 50% above average" for the high person and "set building on fire" for the lowest.

      Slide 4: List of platitudes about "Move into the future with the best of your business and constantly strive to hire the best people".

      Slide 5: We at WeCanUsePowerPoint Consulting Group are proud to serve your company by providing you the best employee management services. That will be $8 million please. Comment from supervisor: don't include the bill in the presentation. Comment from writer: I will make that change before presenting this to the client. Comment from supervisor: we should have a spot in this presentation where we put the client's name so it doesn't look like we just send this to everybody. Hidden note to presenter: "You should distract participants until someone figures out how to delete these comments from the presentation."

      1. Martin an gof Silver badge

        Re: I wonder

        WeCanUsePowerPoint Consulting Group

        Recently found this, sorry it's on iPlayer and probably not available everywhere, but if you can watch it, this should be required viewing for anyone about to undertake the design of a Powerpoint stack:

        Age of Outrage (starts at 0m45)


    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      No wonder here

      This is a setup for the coming cull in headcount that most large companies are doing to appease the Fed by murdering the job market.

      They will never publicly admit this, and they will bend over backwards to avoid acknowledging that this move is a setup for the layoffs they will deny until the day they actually announce them.

      This is because the games industry is ruthless. Management is brainless, soulless and heartless, and quarterly numbers still hold too much sway for an industry that has years long project and product release cycles. They do this all the time, only this time the reasons are publicly available. Game dev's as a result are a migratory species, and other studios will be snapping up talent.

      Which is the main reason that they will probably scream denials every day till they announce the list of who gets canned. They don't want their talent getting spooked and jumping ship before the axe falls, or recruiters targeting them any more than they usually do. That said, there are probably similar announcements in the works at most of the majors, but their managers may be smart enough not to force their teams to knife each other in the pack with fake and punitive performance reviews. Sounds like a crack big enough to jam a wrongful termination suit in though.

      I would have expected this from Blizzard though. All the Interplay veterans I knew were tripping over each other to get in there when they set up shop next to the crystal palace. A few years later they were "meet the new boss, same as the old boss"

      At least it's not Ubisoft. Those bastards probably force you into a fighting pit for a battle to the death with baby seals, while the room slowly fills with the tears of children.

      1. J. Cook Silver badge

        Re: No wonder here

        Heh- Ubisoft's developers are just about in open revolt against the CEO, if a video I watched recently is accurate. Their paris office is looking to srike.

  3. Howard Sway Silver badge

    World of Warcraft Classic lead dev resigns

    Otherwise he might have been given the axe.

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: World of Warcraft Classic lead dev resigns

      BA DUMP BA!

  4. DS999 Silver badge

    Microsoft killing stack ranking

    No doubt because their HR people found something worse to replace it with!

    1. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: Microsoft killing stack ranking

      According to Nadella's speeches, he encountered a lot of problems trying to build functioning cloud teams with this ranking system due to the internal competition. It's not surprising that, having taken over and elevated the cloud to one of their more profitable products, he would have actually tried to improve the system. I doubt your urge to assume Microsoft has to fail at everything is true in this case.

  5. david 12 Silver badge

    Microsoft 2000

    The internal problems in Microsoft were certainly already visible in Y2K. That was the year they released Office 2000, linked with SQL Server 7, which was invalidated by SQL Server 2000.

    If Y2K was the year they introduced stack ranking, that was because it was already a dog-eat-dog war of internal silos.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Microsoft 2000

      Good memory for the product line, but remember that "Dancing Monkey Boy" Ballmer had been a senior exec for ages before Bill stepped down to help dodge the regulators.

      Ballmer may well have been the reason M$ used the method in the first place, long before he was CEO, as he was an EVP and had 20 years under his belt at M$ before they made him CEO.

      IMHO his was the bigger half of the "Everything wrong with Microsoft" pie. He personally held the company back after Gates stepped down, and he helped install the current crop of leadership. If I was a shareholder, a "de-Ballermization" vote would be the top of agenda.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I find that stack ranking is an extremely useful ranking tool.

    If they use it, don't work for them.

    1. Cheshire Cat

      I was working for EDS in the UK when they introduced this to our team of 4.

      That was the point I started actively searching for other opportunities, and found something a lot better...

    2. Binraider Silver badge

      This advice is accurate.

    3. pig

      I had to reread this before my mouse moved over from downvote to upvote.

      (And I assume those 3 downvotes just didn't read it twice).

      A very true point.

      It is strange, As I have got older in IT and implemented 'if you do X, I don't work for you' rules my work life has got far smoother, and the companies I work for are better.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        implemented 'if you do X, I don't work for you' rules my work life has got far smoother

        Amen! The same happened when I was in a position to fire certain customers. I hit upon certain simple test actions that would reveal the customers to avoid before they sucked me into the vortex that is their reality.

  7. Mostly Irrelevant

    Things like stack ranking are the desperate acts of failing management. The board needs to get rid of the real problem, and that problem is sitting at the top of the heirarchy. Fire Bobby Kotick and probably all of his VPs as well.

  8. Joe Gurman

    Microsoft used it in the naughties?

    So that explains the Zune. Nothing else could.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Microsoft used it in the naughties?

      Zune was well after the 90's and was Ballmer's first "mobile" failure, although the Zune wouldn't know either as it didn't like dates:

  9. Securitymoose

    The bell curve is so last century

    But then again, isn't the WoW set in an imaginary past/future?

    I worked for an organisation that insisted on sticking with it, and yes, managers were given the task of allocating one low grade (2) and one high grade (4) while everyone else sat on the middle (3). The recognised procedure would them be for the token 2 to complain to Personnel/Union that they were being victimised (assuming they weren't dead wood, and deserved it), whereupon the 2 would be bumped up to a 3.

    This worked well, satisfied the box-tickers, appeased both employee and manager and rendered the whole appraisal process pointless, as indeed it is if you insist on sticking to the bell curve.

    No amount of logic seems to work with the advocates of this archaic process. All it does is waste everyone's time and company money, and generally hacks off the workforce. Again, sooooo last century.

    Appraisals should be based on individual merit, not relative to others. If there is any scoring, it should be based on objectives agreed between employee and manager at the beginning of each period. If this then falls into a bell curve for a set group of workers, management can smile knowingly, and this is fine, but the tail should not wag the dog.

    1. JacquiGreen

      Re: The bell curve is so last century

      This sounds suspiciously like Eagle Star in the late 90's!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The bell curve is so last century

      Appraisals should be based on individual merit, not relative to others.

      Try telling that to Olympic althletes.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    You can do it…

    …but you can’t force a quota. Or let it bias remuneration.

    Unless you are deliberately hiring and keeping bad people, you can’t tell people they are bad in reviews.

    If you really think someone is bad, you should fire them. That means everyone remaining is by definition satisfactory or better…

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: You can do it…

      "That means everyone remaining is by definition satisfactory or better…"

      Or in Lake Wobegon speak:-

      Blizzard, where all the workstations are strong, all the servers are good looking, and all of the employees are above average.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Meets Expectations"

    The version I came across had "expectations" that you could meet, exceed or fail to meet... Since no one in HR ever defined the expectations, it was very hard to see it as anything other than a way to get rid of people.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It seems M and S are currently using stack ranking. I hope they scrap it v soon.

  13. BigAndos

    Stack ranking and “up or out” are terrible systems. They both ignore the fact that sometimes people enjoy doing technical work at a certain level and don’t want the extra bull poop that comes with a promotion to management. They also ignore that actually every team needs people who quietly get on with the job as well as people who lead/push for change etc.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "people who lead/push for change etc"

      or as I like to call them arse lickers with stupid ideas

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    We had the "bell curve" in a previous job. It was more often referred to by us peons as the "bell-end curve".

  15. J I

    A perfect way to shoot yourself in the foot

    A former colleague of mine was once a contractor at a division of BT that used this system. In a team that he worked with the team manager was told he needed to rank one of his reports as needing improvement, but refused to do so because all his team members were excellent. When the higher ups said there was no way they could possibly make an exception to the rule he handed his notice in and went to work for another company on the other side of the same business park. By a strange coincidence, some six months or so later all of his excellent team members had also left BT and gone to work for the same company.

    1. Laura Kerr

      Re: A perfect way to shoot yourself in the foot

      Ex (thankfully) BT person here. That's absolutely spot-on. I have not-so-fond memories of being on performance manglement calls where we were all told "we don't have enough people ranked as 'needs improvement'" (or whatever it was called). Everyone who wasn't a sociopathic people manager knew exactly what a 'witch hunt' meant.

      I was very glad to get out of there. On my last day, I deliberately nuked my laptop and Blackberry for no reason other than pure spite.

  16. Binraider Silver badge

    Known crappy employer craps on staff. Nothing to see here.

    Though really, have you not exhausted WoW yet? I have a fairly addictive mindset and the shallow-as-a-puddle gameplay and skill requirements of WoW have no longevity for me.

    What am I saying, WoW is ideal for the shallow and unskilled masses....

    1. Ragarath


      I'm better than other people because I can shit on them.

      Are you 5?

      1. Binraider Silver badge

        Re: Yawn!

        If you haven't seen all of the endless accusations of of problems in Blizz/Activision then you must have been under a rock for the last 15 years.

        Seriously, if you have a crap employer, move on. There's plenty other places to go.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Oh don't you just love yourself.

      "WoW is ideal for the shallow and unskilled masses" my arse.

      1. Binraider Silver badge

        Struck a nerve with dedicated WoW players did I?

        The social scene of WoW is the only reason for it's longevity.

        Seriously, how many times do you have to do "go kill X of Y to collect Z gizmos" to realise the gameplay is repetitive and uninspiring. There are worse MMOs of course; not least Guild Wars, or Diablo III.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          you do understand all past times, games, football, anything else you can think of have repetative loops?

          even drinking and eating.

          if you don't enjoy a particular loop, go find a different one, but try not shitting on others enjoyment, you just look like an elitist plank.

          1. Binraider Silver badge

            If I give a title a bad review, is that me being elitist?

            $Deity forbid someone have a different opinion.

            For the record, I can't stand professional-level Footy, Cricket or Golf. Does that mean I'm ostracised for criticising those games? (Yes, because culture doesn't accept people who dare to be different). The ostracism is in fact a major driver for why I can't stand them.

        2. DrSunshine0104

          No more likely they are referring to you inability to understand for various and wide ranging reasons why a person might take a job you deem as beneath your quite obvious superior intellect, as you don't work for Blizzard or enjoy their games. I mean if you cannot understand it, it must mean it does not make sense!

          But, no. You are probably only a decimal of competency that you try to pose. You shuffle through the day terrified that someone might ask you to prove your competency only to disappoint everyone. If you cannot even attempt to abstractly brainstorm a reason why people might to take any job or like doing a well-defined task repetitively, I really doubt your cleverness or competency. Having the maturity it examine one's own weakness and problem solve is an absolutely must on my IT/dev team. You are showing your ass.

          But, I used to play WoW way back in the aughts, I have worked a position that paid less than my skill and wasn't handed a 6 figure income out of university... so you shouldn't listen to me.

          1. Binraider Silver badge

            It's a simple game with an active social scene, and virtually no decision making. Pick a class, assign equipment and button mash your abilities. Perhaps consider consumables. That's your lot.

            It is barely one step removed from the clicker/idler genre. As such, it is ideal for the mass market having no skill barrier to entry or success. Top tier lootz? Just play the game more.

            Regarding working for Blizzard, why would anyone want to work for that shitshow of a corporation. Activision's HR screwups are widely documented. The lead dev takes a stand against an obvious turn for the worse and I applaud it.

            There is no shortage of job vacancies for the sort of skills that get you into a job with Blizzard. Or go self employed.

            I have played WoW, for about 2 weeks, around the time of WOLC, widely regarded as the best vintage of the game. It was a popular turd then, and worse now.

            Do I think any less of anyone playing WoW? No. But is it a game that I'd invest a lot of time in? Hell no. Because it is shallow.

            And some people can't take a comment in jest. Though I should know better than that, because even the Register is not Immune from the residents of the internet.

  17. breakfast Silver badge

    Seeking new employment

    Presumably to find a new job he just has to look for a recruiter with an exclamation mark above their head.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Seeking new employment

      I! thought! that! one! had! already! disappeared!

      I!I!R!C! it! morphed! into! something! called! Oaf! or! similar! .!.!.!

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I encountered the bell curve system at HSBC (IT), a long time ago.

    The problem was that as a team manager one was tasked with implementing a "mentoring programme" for any employee considered to performing below average. At year end you then had to rank the team.

    So what's the deal with the guy you'd been mentoring?

    No improvement so YOU've failed.

    Or he's improved so you have to pick on some other guy who can then legitimately claim he's not had that mentoring and the opportunity to improve so YOU've failed.

    So at the start of one year my boss picked a target from my team, he was a bit of a waste of space (the manager I mean, more so than his selected target). Boss ordered me to provide mentoring over the year but to ensure the guy didn't improve so he'd be the bottom of the stacking but wouldn't be able to complain he'd not had the support to improve.

    I refused and was told that in that case I would be at the bottom of the stack at year end and no mentoring.

    Eventually I claimed constructive dismissal, was awarded 2 years pay (largely tax free) and immediate pension. As I drag myself out of bed at 9:00a.m. I sometimes reflect on how much I miss the alarm going off at 7:00 and the commute to and from a 9-5 job. These days I have to spend time with my family and every day's a holiday. Life has become such a struggle but I'm coping.

    1. Binraider Silver badge

      Re: HSBC

      If everyone does well, do you classify everyone as average?

      If someone doesn't pull their weight, but the rest are average, who gets the extra? What about the bonuses being paid at management / exec levels for running teams "lean" - and thus perform poorly, so the staff do badly while the exec drink champagne?

      It is NOT that difficult to rate your employees on what they have delivered and how they have gone about achieving it i.e. if they got results but did so creating a PR shitstorm for saying things they shouldn't... Well, yes, they performed badly.

      But fundamentally a bell curve is just a budgetary constraint being applied at staff levels. Totally agree with the developer sticking up for his principles and telling Blizz to get bent.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: HSBC

        I heard an anecdote of a problem at the top end of the stack too (also HSBC). The embarrassed recipient of a letter advising of their bonus promptly went to the manager and said "I think there's a typing error, one too many zero's on the award". Boss confirmed that the figure was correct to which the recipient replied something like "... but I'm just one of a team, the team has done well and it's not fair on the rest to single me out".

  19. trevorde Silver badge

    Stack ranking does work

    It's worked really well for IBM. Oh, wait...

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Stack ranking bell-curve in use at my place of work

    It's bullshit. For those of us who create high performing teams, and manage up (or out) any weaker performers, it bullshit getting told to find sacrificial under-performers.

    The only reason they do it is to be cheap-ass when it comes to bonuses and other performance related pay.

    1. Binraider Silver badge

      Re: Stack ranking bell-curve in use at my place of work

      HR are never on the employee's side.

      Of course, HR, being made OF employees, have a weird dual-role in such monstrosities.

  21. xtam667

    There are exceptional, average and weaker performers in any team. However, it is very frustrating if performance rating thresholds are relative. If one is relatively weak compared to the star performer but meets clearly defined targets, then they cannot be in the "needs improvement" bucket. I would agree with the bell curve approach if targets were defined relative to the best performer. But that does not work in business.

    Top consulting firms used to apply the bell curve approach quite ruthlessly. One could be two times the weakest in a team, at most. Or, they would routinely hire more fresh graduates than needed and get rid of the weakest bunch after a year.

  22. imanidiot Silver badge

    Names change, practices do not

    While "stack ranking" might not be done anymore in it's original guise and name, I doubt there's any large corporations that do not in some form "stack rank" their employees when it comes to when it comes time to distribute bonuses and pink slips. I've heard of few companies of 1000+ personnel where managers are allowed to give their team positive or excellent reviews if they've met all targets all year long. They're only ever allowed to give a certain amount of "above average" and "average" evaluations and sometimes even forced to give a certain amount of "below average" even if none of their team actually deserves this.

  23. Wolfclaw

    I hate performance reviews, I was employed at my age, to bring long term stability to a role nobody really wanted for more than a year and was used as a steeping stone up the ladder, so company as a whole did suffer from experience constantly going to other departments. Now has mission creep, stretching targets, agile working, whatever happened to being happy in job, providing constant excellent service for satisfactory pay?

    1. J. Cook Silver badge

      It shows that you are not willing to give your life over to the company in pursuit of More Pay.

      I want to say that finding my comfortable place in the company I'm at is nice, at least as long as my management team continues to behave the way they currently do. I'll not suffer another toxic boss ever again.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    My employer has a strange ranking system using a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 being the best.

    There is (or was) an HR mandate stating that no one gets a '5'. You could literally save the galaxy, cure cancer, and bring world peace, and you'd still only get a '4' on your performance review.

    That's why I self-grade myself as '3' every year- I meet expectations. I'll let my boss heap any praise on me. :)

    Anon for reasons...

  25. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

    ahhh stack rankings

    or a variant thereof

    The gentle art of fucking your business up so badly only the dire and the power hungry end up working for you....... neither of which are particually good.

    If you're above average in an excellent team you'll get the boot(or 'training' then the boot)

    If you're below average in a dire team, you'll get a bonus.

    That works wonders for employee morale.... and the job search people... so all you'll end up with is the dire teams where someone can look good for being below average.

    And then when the smelly stuff hits the fan, your employees dont have the skills or talent to respond and your company goes ka-boom.

    While across the street, where all your good employees have gone, is booming , while the staff lean out of the windows pointing and going 'ha-ha'

    Been there , done that, glad I work somewhere that does'nt use stack ranking

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    For all we know this is one person who lost at office politics and is now trying to convince the world it was a global policy at the enterprise and not someone adept at twisting policy to suit thier individual office politics needs that forced them out.

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