The Ongoing Saga of Workplace Culture at Activision-Blizzard

The ABK situation has been a little slower to unfold than I think many of us believed it would be back in July.

Just in time for yesterday’s quarterly earnings call, we had a slate of news items that happened since the last time I wrote on this topic. As I’ve done throughout, rather than being a hot take machine on this topic, I wanted there to be sufficient topics to discuss and so here we are now with a pretty decent slate of news about it.

WoW’s Patch 9.1.5 Cultural Changes

WoW is a game with a lot of old art assets. Patch 9.1.5, released yesterday, made a stride towards updating a handful of those assets, specifically paintings. I’m going to be real, I fucking hate this topic, because here’s my take – these changes are fine and it really isn’t my place to say I like or dislike them anyways, because it isn’t targeted at me or for me. Because there’s nothing else to discuss in WoW, when these changes were on the PTR, it caused a shitstorm that was simultaneously funny and depressing. So many internet edgelords cried that these changes weren’t substantial (despite their caterwauling over the changes), and the only interesting argument I saw was from women in the community, some of whom suggested that the replacement of one of the old sexualized woman paintings with a bowl of fruit was a reduction in representation. I tuned out of the discussion pretty quickly because it was tiring and there was little substance to them – outside of the one interesting and nuanced discussion over representation, I saw a lot of dudes shedding tears over low-res paintings they likely almost never see in-game anyways, and then there was the bullshit conspiracy theories that tasking the art team with a small number of new paintings was taking away content and development time for other features, which is entirely a laughable notion even considering the time it would take to spin up a set of new assets. 9.1.5 is content-void, and was planned that way by the team, who focused on Legion Timewalking and hackathon ideas to bring up the game’s enjoyability in Shadowlands over new content.

Then there was the emote changes, removing emotes that had been used hostilely in the past or recent memory (most notably the /spit after shitlord commander Asmongold told his peons to use it on people with shop mounts to…send a message to Blizzard?). The arguments over this change were similarly goofy and idiotic – most people trying to pretend they weren’t smelling their own farts by using some variation of an argument about how WoW is a PvP game and it doesn’t make sense that you can’t spit on players but can kill them. These arguments, of course, remove all context for how such emotes can be used on friendly players and how they are rarely used in any meaningful context or even in an RP-PvP setting and are instead usually just a thing you do to convey disgust or dislike. My take is that these were low hanging fruit and I think the emotes themselves were fine, but removing them does remove a vector that has been loaded up in recent memory as a weapon with incorrectly-aimed intentions and so I don’t mourn their loss.

The other changes were a little less contentious and thus less discussed – reporting improvements and more character customization including things like the option to have an Incubus instead of a Succubus for Warlocks. All of these changes were pretty welcome and I didn’t see any eye-rollingly bad arguments against these.

My general take is that live-service games like WoW that end up with long shelf lives can benefit from a freshening up of the cultural landscape every now and then. So much of WoW’s history is full of in-jokes or references to far-gone times (Warden Moi-bff’Jill in Nagrand being an obvious moment in time that is well past its expiration date) that can confuse or alienate newer or younger players who weren’t even alive for the original reference, and changes can help keep the game up to date. I want WoW to be a world that more people can get into and aren’t pushed away from, and I think even small changes that help women players feel more welcome is a good thing. I also, personally, find it that when someone makes an argument against something being “woke,” they are often doing so in bad-faith and ignoring their inputs helps more than humoring them. The line I would personally draw is that players should have self-control over their representation – if they enjoy skimpy transmogs and the like for themselves, I think they should be allowed that as they have been – but creating an in-universe equality to how things within Blizzard’s control are presented is a good idea and something that can be beneficial to bringing in more players.

Plus, it’s just a couple of paintings. If you’re a dude mad about them, grow the fuck up already.

Kotick Responds to Employee Concerns, But Only Barely

Last week, Bobby Kotick, CEO of the overall ABK organization, pushed a letter out through the company’s PR channels. He was making a few changes to the company’s handling of sexual harassment and workplace environment, through a 5-change plan:

  1. Zero-tolerance harassment policy, including termination for “instances of workplace misconduct” and for retaliation
  2. Committing $250 million USD to accelerate opportunities for diverse talent and also committing to increasing the percentage of women and non-binary workers by 50%
  3. Waiving forced arbitration, but only for sexual harassment and discrimination claims against the company
  4. “More visibility” on pay equity on an annual basis, but no clarity to what that entails, other than a base statement that “women at the company on average earned slightly more than men for comparable work in 2020”
  5. Regular progress updates with quarterly updates on the topic to shareholders

Functionally, all of this grazes the demands list from A Better ABK without actually checking off items. I am of two minds on this – firstly that this the bare minimum and far more must be done, but I think a good start is a good start and is worthwhile progress (but that doesn’t entail praise for leadership at ABK), and I agree with Jason Schreier’s take: regardless of the management motivation for these changes, workers did organize and win. At a time when the US labor market is experiencing tightness, workers have more power than usual to demand changes and fair compensation, and as we just came out of Striketober, one of the biggest surges in labor militancy in recent history (although still historically small), it is refreshing to see bosses over the barrel even slightly. Game developers are in a great position to demand improved workplace conditions and compensation right now, and to join in demonstrations and denial of their services like is currently happening to John Deere and Kellogg’s (both unionized workplaces) until their needs are met.

This is definitely an image I had to search for and not at all one I had already…

The other change Kotick announced is one that has less to do with the employee demands and more with investors, but is still a good change – his compensation for 2021 was voluntarily reduced to the minimum salary allowed in the state of California, with no bonuses or equity included, taking him from an astoundingly dumb $155 million USD potential earnings to $62,500.

All told, these changes are good steps in the right direction but also fall far short of what the employees have asked for, and the company still employs anti-labor law firm WilmerHale for handling these issues, so while this is less tone-deaf than letting noted torture-enthusiast Frances Townsend write bullheaded statements about how her 6 month tenure has been remarkably harassment-free and so surely it can’t be that bad, there is still much progress and more to be made. Speaking of female leadership at ABK…

Jen ONeal Out After…Two Months?

Back in August, as the fire of the CA DFEH lawsuit was first roaring, a big move made by Blizzard was the removal of J Allen Brack as President of Blizzard, replaced instead by two “co-leaders” in Mike “Qwik” Ybarra and Jen Oneal. Both had prior experience within the organization – Ybarra was an EVP at Blizzard while Oneal was previously the head of Vicarious Visions, which was merged into Blizzard with the development of Diablo II Resurrected and then dissolved fully into the company recently.

Yesterday, Oneal announced her departure from Blizzard, stating it was voluntary and that she was taking on a new opportunity to focus on making a better environment for women in the games industry, with ABK making a $1,000,000 grant to Women in Games International, an organization where Oneal serves on the board.

This is such an odd announcement, because it cuts in a lot of different directions. On the one hand, Oneal was a great leader at Vicarious Visions and the studio has always done pretty good work, and having her in that co-leader role at Blizzard felt like a valuable change to make in the wake of all the news we got over the summer, and her belief in the mission of improving the standing of women and minorities in the games industry seems genuine and respectable. On the other hand, it feels weirdly dissonant – your goal in leaving is to step away from a leadership role in one of the largest game studios in the world to move outside the immediate industry to an advocacy role? While the goal is noble, I would assume there is more leverage to be had at the belly of the beast, as it were, instead of by leaving, so I find the decision somewhat baffling. That being said, I don’t have full visibility into what that decision entails outside of the public announcement and so I can’t say with any certainty that it is a good or bad move – just “a” move.

This leaves full leadership of Blizzard overall in Ybarra’s hands. Ybarra was a leader that WoW players were excited for – he does Mythic Plus +20 keys and up and plays at a high level! – but he also had his own mini-controversy recently when he streamed his guild’s gameplay, including sale of carries. It’s not really directly relevant here, but I’ll say this – carrying is a tradition for time-immemorial in MMOs and while I think people have deeply polarized opinions on it, it as an act is not good or bad – it just is a fact of life in MMOs of all stripes and WoW is hardly the first game to have, the last game that will have it, nor does WoW have it to any greater extent than many games (FFXIV infamously has “purchased legends” for Ultimate raids, which has recently been a firestorm of some extent as well). Ybarra seems passionate about Blizzard games in particular and I’m glad to see him still around, but I do still find Oneal’s departure slightly strange.

The Attempts at Pausing the Lawsuit

ABK is being investigated by two entities – a state-level one in the CA DFEH and a federally-based one. ABK’s arguments have been to pause the investigation as they alleged a conflict of interest and ethics violations, stemming from employees who moved from the federal organization (the EEOC) to the state one while the investigations were ongoing. This argument came in the light of the EEOC alleging a conflict of interest against the DFEH due to alleged violations of the California Rules of Professional Conduct. This was because DFEH moved to file an expedited intervention against ABK’s attempted $18 million settlement with the EEOC as it was perceived that the settlement could hurt DFEH’s investigation, which covers a lot of the same ground.

Basically, I am not a lawyer, but the whole thing is a hot mess on procedural grounds, with the two agencies investigating and litigating at odds with each other while ABK is happy to let them snipe at each other and use the arguments that emerge from that conflict to cloak themselves. We’re locked in the procedural swamps waiting for something to happen, essentially – and it is anyone’s guess as to where things go with the actual original lawsuit from here. Richard Hoeg, a Michigan-based attorney, has a video explaining some of the conflict – it’s long, but worth a watch when you can set aside the time.

What is potentially troubling if you were rooting for ABK to have a grim day in court is that the DFEH lawyers, who have been pursuing the case rather doggedly and not interested in settlements, may have actually shown their ass and when all of this is properly litigated, it seems like it could lead to the EEOC settlement being the winning decision, with a bare minimum given to affected employees at ABK and additional federal oversight to, theoretically, prevent future issues with harassment and discrimination.

The TL;DR is simple enough – the whole thing is a mess right now and the legal case has made little forward progress in any way, stuck instead of questions of ethics that are valid points but have nothing directly to do with ABK, who is definitely making an effort to weaponize these issues to weasel their way out of a pickle.

In Closing

This whole thing just keeps getting weirder and weirder, and in few ways any of us could have predicted even just weeks ago. Against this backdrop we have Blizzard struggling to regain footing and employees trying to make things better for players and for themselves, but everything feels like it is crawling towards an uncertain future. It especially sucks that no matter how easy it is to root against ABK in this circumstance, their legal complaint about the potential ethics and conduct rules violations of the team-switching lawyers is valid and seemingly correct based on public evidence, which sucks because it is also very clear that ABK’s culture enabled the horrors we read about in the initial lawsuit and that this violation of professional conduct on behalf of the two lawyers involved may sink any potential of real justice being done for the victims, stuck instead with a minimal federal settlement that is barely a slap on the wrist.

Within ABK, the cultural moves seem to be taking root and I am curious to see how things shape up in the near future – how the new outlook on things defines the content we get in WoW 9.2, in Overwatch 2, in Diablo IV, and beyond, and to see what comes of the changes to reporting in WoW and how these things impact the playerbase.

The last time I wrote on this topic, it felt like we were at the tip of the iceberg, but now it seems like what lies in the deeps may end up resting there longer and indeed may never surface fully, and that feels like a disservice to the affected employees and people who were harmed or pushed out of the games industry by the kind of reprehensible conduct the initial complaint described.

7 thoughts on “The Ongoing Saga of Workplace Culture at Activision-Blizzard

  1. I don’t know about cultural moves taking root. Corporate culture is extremely resilient and tougher than crabgrass to root out. It is also hard to see from the inside.

    A company I worked for was acquired by another company. Both companies had similar, competing software only product, so they were killing a competitor. But working for them was Bizarro world because up until five years before the acquisition they had also been a hardware company, and software had just slowly become the main business, with hardware dying when it was too expensive to redesign old, slow selling units to use lead-free solder.

    But they worked and processed things like a hardware company still. I had worked for companies that did hardware before, so I recognized a lot of it, but it was a whole bunch of extra work at times simply because that was how they knew how to do things, the way they had always done things, and so it was natural to have, for example, a long SAP based process for creating a BOM for a software delivery… that the customer would end up downloading because the internet had become a thing since the company was founded… though processing a download order still required all the work of shipping them hardware as well. Customers complained, we the acquired complained, and we just got blank looks like we were crazy for not doing things in this particular way.

    And then a year later that company was acquired by an even larger company which was a phone company spin-off and… well, it was people with a hardware mentality working for people who were used to being a legal monopoly. I was laid off after that, be that whole company was acquired by another company, so there are probably multiple layers of clashing culture still going on… if any of them are even still around in whatever structure now exists.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I really like this comment as someone who worked in a massive software conglomerate. And you’re right, too – cultural rot can be hard to see from the inside because your perspective is grounded to your immediate work team and department and companies that state a set of “values” can often attract sycophantic defenders that insist the values are being upheld regardless of whether that is accurate or not.

      For me on the outside, I can see easily now that the company is both poor at holding to their values and also on thin ice because they think they can maintain their revenue levels forever as-is (their main business involves buying competition that reaches a big enough threat level while using lobbying of the US government to maintain the status quo requiring their help to millions of US consumers on an annual basis).

      They have a value about being people centered and yet have semi-annual mass layoffs to meet or exceed investor projections, but a lot of people inside find their own ways to reconcile this as somehow consistent with the values stated. Something about tech companies that attracts these weird, floaty values statements that end up never meaning much!


    2. I found this amusing since it vaguely describes HP vs. Compaq in the early/mid 2000s.

      Carly Fiorina championed the merge with Compaq because it would eliminate a competitor and keep HP relevant. She had significant blowback from people within HP because they felt that Compaq was going to trample on The HP Way, a polite way of saying the Compaq corporate culture of “throw it over the wall and patch it as needed” was going to win out.

      Turns out they were correct, as Carly won the battle for the merger then lost the war when she canned a bunch of HP management, replaced them with Compaq people, who then turned around and canned her as well. The HP Way lost, and HP’s (now Compaq’s) notions of corporate culture and quality took over. So if you ever wondered what happened to HP’s quality over the years, now you know. It’s Compaq’s notions of quality and what you could get away with that drove HP from roughly the mid 2000s onward. (Don’t get me started about HP Labs and what corporate did there, or that a lot of people I know still consider Agilent the “REAL” HP.)


      1. Heh, my current boss was a Compaq person who was part of that merger at the time and I was working on the video phone software and hardware that Compaq was trying to go somewhere with around then as well. That was a strange one and the end result many years down the line is that the ubiquitous HP buildings that used to be all over Silicon Valley are almost all Apple buildings now. (And I think Agilent might be the “real” HP, or as closed as still exists, as well.)


  2. Sorry, I’m on the opposite side of opinion about cultural changes. You cannot just paint over your history, be it good or bad. To me, it’s the same as coming to a museum and starting to evaluate the works of old from a modern angle, removing or painting over everything that does not work with the modern perception – and that’s nearly everything because said works were created by people of old, with their old beliefs. I can appreciate works of old, paintings, movies, cartoons – for example, I could laugh at blackface comedy in MGM cartoons (an “african” mugshot is a must when a dynamite blows in a character’s face, for example), or the standard of family relations of the 50s (working husband’s the boss, woman serving him) doesn’t stop me from enjoying a movie – but with a note to myself that the same jokes and standards in modern works about modern times would be totally wild and inappropriate. The very low-res itself is an indicator that it was implemented in older times.

    The keynote here is: add, not remove. Incubus/Succubus is a great example, because developers do not try to clad Succubus in a robe, but rather add something new. You don’t remove or paint over slutmogs, you keep adding them – but with a man slut option for equality.


    1. This one is funny, because I don’t necessarily agree or disagree – it’s complicated. In the real world, I think there’s a mess you could wade into over whether something is worth keeping in the zeitgeist – there are some recent US-side examples where I think that removing things that use “historical remembrance” as means of hiding a more sinister intention are worth changing, and other cases where I wouldn’t go that direction. I do think in the game, removing a single-digit number of paintings isn’t an awful thing, and I feel it’s more akin to remodeling a house when you take ownership of it rather than covering up history. I do appreciate that your vantage point is better argued and stated than the vast majority I read online preparing to write this and actually states an interesting case even if I would disagree with the specifics, but we’d be pretty far afield of games at that point!

      I am all in on additive choices and letting players continue to maintain agency over their own characters and I think if the game works on expanding those options, that is ideal. Character customization expansion is always a net good for players and easy to get behind whether I would use the options or not.


      1. The huge difference here is that a museum can (and should) contextualize its exhibits with explanatory information. It’s basically what a museum is for. Today, those old MGM cartoons, for example, could legitimately be shown as part of a gallery or museum exhibition with supporting text or video explaining their history and cultural provenance. They could not, as they did when I was growing up, just appear on TV at random with no explanation between other, contemporary cartoons, exactly as though all of them had been made in the same timeframe.

        The pictures in WoW are the equivalent of those cartoons on TV: misplaced, out of time, decontextualized. This is a problem mmorpgs have that other video games don’t. They don’t just stand alone as artefacts of their era. They move forward, continually, through time, which places a requirement on them to respond and adapt to cultural changes that a standalone video game neither would nor could need to recognize.

        That said, I’m not entirely sure the paintings, as described, would have felt culturally appropriate in 2004. It’s not that long ago. Maybe they were just bad ideas to begin with.

        Liked by 1 person

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