Thursday, February 2, 2023

In Case You Ever Wondered Whether Game Companies are Soulless Corporations...

...I give you the latest little brouhaha from Blizzard.

I give major props to Brian Birmingham, the now ex-Activision-Blizzard manager, for his principled stand against the stacked ranking corporate policy at A-B, but as soon as I read the words "stacked ranking" I knew he was swimming against the tide.

For the life of me, I have no idea why executive corporate management loves stacked ranking among those other "corporate trends" --I'm looking at you, open office floor designs*-- but that it was popularized by GE's Jack Welch says a lot. 

I've been in the work force full time since 1991, and yes, I've encountered stacked ranking before. Numerous times. And its basic principle, that teams should be shoehorned into a bell curve and that the bottom 10% are poor performers, is something I despise. There is very little nuance to the stacked ranking system, where the best performer on a crappy team is given a higher ranking than an average to poor performer on a fantastic team. The stacked ranking system also encourages cutthroat behavior among peers, which includes such items as coworkers sabotaging projects to make their own work look better. Again, I've seen such behavior in the past among coworkers. The focus isn't on putting out good work, but playing the system to maximum advantage. 

From AD&D Dungeon Masters
Guide (1e), Page 111.

So yeah, I have a history with stacked ranking. 

And if you're playing politics with the system, you're not spending time putting out a good product. And in the case of Blizzard, you're not developing bug free, well designed games.

*I'm incredibly grateful I work from home, because if I had to work at the office, it would have been in an open office design. Even in a post-pandemic world, corporations still love the open office design for some strange ungodly reason. I work in IT Security, so by nature I tend to have sensitive material up on screen a lot of the time. If you're thinking "Hey, wait a minute, if it's up on screen and you're in an open office, anybody can walk by and see that!" then you'd be absolutely correct. Without any privacy whatsoever, there's little ability to securely handle sensitive data. I didn't say there's no ability, because you still can, but proper handling of sensitive data out in the open also involves additional cost, and cost is the antithesis of corporate life.


  1. Stack ranking is such a horrible, cancerous way to run a company. Kurt Eichenwald had a Vanity Fair article in 2012 that blamed SR for "losing" a whole decade for Microsoft that started the whole backlash then. Relatedly there's an old MakingLight blog post ( from when it came up that kind of does a good job of highlighting other articles that came out that were critical of the process and it's use/misuse, plus the commentariat did an amazing job of providing anecdotes and further explanations. To paraphrase the whole thing, Stack Ranking is about competition *between* people in a group who are supposed to be cooperating, and creates incentives that destroy the cooperation that's supposed to be creating the product, because the financial incentives are to be the "best" in a group, not make sure the group succeeds. If they keep this up, content will only get worse and come out less often. Funny that being bought by Microsoft could be so much healthier for them than being run by the current crop of idiots. Also good for Brian Birmingham that he's out. It has to be soul-crushing for any managers left behind dealing with that.

    (P.S. love that old comic, I bet I have the 1st. ed DMG in a box somewhere lol)

    1. Stacked ranking puts such a premium on getting the "plumb" assignments that that alone can destroy a team's continuity. I remember back in 2001 our team lost a really good coworker because she felt that she never got a chance at a top ranking because people on the European portion of the team (we were a global team back then) got all the good assignments and all the glory, while those of us back in the States got the mundane "shit" jobs instead. Another team member got out of our team as soon as possible because the big project he was working on --and was actually going well, considering all the political land mines in his way-- was summarily taken away from him and given to another team member from --you guessed it-- the European team. All that person had to do was finish the implementation and got the top ranking, while my coworker who did *everything* else just to get it to that point got the shaft.

      At first I thought people were just seeing things when they were overly ambitious themselves, but after the second or third time of this happening I had to admit that yes, they had a point. Trying for the plumb assignments to get the top ranking and the biggest raises --and getting put in a feedback loop that advances them faster than others who are just as qualified-- turns coworkers against each other for no good reason.

      As soon as I read the first articles about Brian's brouhaha, I thought of this comic. Alas that our 1e material is long gone --courtesy of the Satanic Panic-- but I picked up the reprints when they came out several years ago.