Diablo IV devs work long hours, bracing for June 6, 2023 release date

Mismanagement and disturbing script changes contributed to delays, workers say

(Rebekka Dunlap for the Washington Post)


Activision Blizzard employees developing the upcoming dark fantasy action role-playing game “Diablo IV” say it will be hard to meet a June 6, 2023, release date without working significant overtime, in a process they say has been plagued by mismanagement. The release date, which has not been announced publicly, comes in the same month that Microsoft’s proposed $68.7 billion acquisition is set to close. The company is incentivizing employees to “crunch,” an industry term referring to working late evenings and weekends outside of regular work hours, by promising them perks some workers say are paltry.

The best-selling Diablo series has not seen a new mainline installment since 2012, and fans have been eagerly anticipating the latest. Developers, in turn, have been afraid of disappointing gamers, and in interviews, they described a beleaguered process of trying to meet a release date that feels unlikely without many hours of overtime or cut features. The release date has already shifted multiple times, they said.

Fifteen current and former Blizzard employees spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about company operations. They described a mounting sense of dissatisfaction and malaise among employees as they endured leadership changes at Activision Blizzard and on the “Diablo IV” team. The Diablo team has been losing talent for over a year, as employees look for more competitive wages and better work conditions elsewhere, according to employees. One group of about 20 developers working on one portion of the game saw about half of its members leave within a year, according to two former employees. Blizzard did not comment on attrition on the “Diablo IV” team.

Last January, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick attributed the company’s stock price drop to the game delay of Diablo in a Venture Beat interview, rather than an ongoing sexual harassment lawsuit filed against the company in July of 2021. “I think what affected the stock price more than [the sexual harassment investigation] is pushing out [the release dates of] ‘Overwatch’ and ‘Diablo,’” he said, explaining that was one of the reasons he was selling the company to Microsoft.

His comments frustrated some of the company’s developers, who felt he was blaming them unfairly.

“We felt very much like he just drove the bus over on top of us,” said a male former “Diablo IV” team lead.

Blizzard Entertainment spokesperson Andrew Reynolds told The Post, “As you may know, game development in general, and ‘Diablo IV’ specifically, follows an iterative process where the scope evolves over time. Production on the game is going extremely well. Overtime is voluntary and limited to specific teams. We regularly survey the team on their professional well-being, and the latest results are the most positive they’ve been in years.”

“Crunching” in the video game industry is a common practice, but it’s become controversial in recent years, even while game developers continue working late into the evenings and weekends, sometimes secretly. Despite wishing to avoid crunch, some Blizzard employees in recent months find themselves facing down long hours again, unwilling to publish an unfinished product. They described consequences of crunch that included chronic back injuries, insomnia and anxiety, as well as less time to spend with family or to maintain romantic relationships.

“Previously, it’s ruined relationships I’ve been in where no one wants to date someone who barely has time for them for months at a time, at least once a year, if not more,” said a current Blizzard Albany employee, who described often working 12-hour days. “It’s affected my health, it’s affected my relationships, both familiar and romantic. It affects my ability to just enjoy things.”

The company has not explicitly required employees to work overtime in most cases, and has offered employees various incentives as they rush to meet “Diablo IV’s” release date, from profit-sharing to covering meals. The company provides a $25 DoorDash credit to employees who work more than 10 hours a day. “As we close the project, we understand that we are moving into a period where some people may put in some extra hours,” read a Nov. 7 email sent to the entire “Diablo IV” team.

“We were never going to hit our date without crunch,” said a former Blizzard employee of a previously-intended “Diablo IV” internal release date. “And even with crunch, I don’t even know if we would have hit our date.”

Activision Blizzard is offering “Diablo IV” developers a deal in which they will gain twice as many company stock shares when the game releases. Employees said they were offered more stock to stay on based on their position and seniority, from around $5,000 in value for entry-level workers to upward of $50,000 for more senior employees.

People familiar with senior leadership said Kotick likes to use performance shares to motivate employees, and they were not surprised about Activision Blizzard’s deal for Diablo developers.

A person familiar with senior leadership found the performance shares “unnecessary and even destructive,” arguing that “they incentivize leadership to cut corners, compromise and ship products that are not ready to be released, instead of doing what is best for long term value creation.”

Blizzard did not comment on the stock deal or Kotick’s use of performance shares.

Half of the stock grant that Activision Blizzard is awarding “Diablo IV” developers will vest automatically in December 2022 and March 2024, while the other half is tied to performance. A quarter of the grant will vest if employees stay at the company for six months after the game’s release date, while the final quarter will vest if they stay for 12 months after the release date, according to documents viewed by The Post.

Unlike cash bonuses, stock fluctuates in value, depending on the company’s current stock price, and connects employees’ income to the fate of the company. Major video game companies often offer employees restricted stock units as a way to keep talent at the company for longer.

Under the terms of the Microsoft merger, according to an Activision investment document, restricted stock units will be paid out at $95 each, while performance shares will be calculated after the deal closes, pending regulatory approval.

“It’s writing checks that somebody else has to cover,” said Joost van Dreunen, a lecturer on the business of games at the New York University Stern School of Business. “Assuming the deal goes through, Bobby Kotick doesn’t have to give you cash, plus, rushing a title might erode the value of the franchise if it’s not bug-free.”

“It’s really just a way for the company to, without mandating crunch, make people want to work much, much longer hours, and stress themselves out, and burn themselves out to save the company money and get it out quicker,” said a current Blizzard Albany employee. “It’s tied to your own financial well-being to make the now technically voluntary decision to crunch or to hurt your own mental and physical health to finish the game quickly enough for you to get the bonus.”

Several former employees alleged a lack of career progression. They said when they asked for raises, some managers would suggest they apply for jobs elsewhere, leave Blizzard and return one day for higher pay, which encouraged many of them and their peers to quit.

“I just went to work every day and got angry,” said a female former Blizzard Albany employee. “Either because the tools were slow or I didn’t like the game that much, to be totally honest with you. The quality of life to actually enjoy what I’m working on and see a path forward with it was way too important to stick around for the equity.”

While those hoping to break into video games are still willing to apply for jobs at Activision Blizzard, the company continues to experience a slow drain of talent while fending off multiple ongoing sexual harassment lawsuits. Employees have staged multiple walkouts protesting the company’s treatment of workers, and more than 1,000 of the company’s approximately 9,500 employees signed a petition calling for Kotick’s resignation. In a March 2022 statement following the settlement of one of the lawsuits, Kotick said the company’s goal is to become “a model for the industry, and we will continue to focus on eliminating harassment and discrimination from our workplace.”

The employees interviewed by The Post said it was not simply people quitting that posed a problem, but the kinds of employees who left. Many with institutional knowledge and decades of experience exited, leaving new employees and developers brought in from elsewhere at the company to fill in.

“Every single individual that we lost, for whatever reason, definitely was a huge impact,” said the former team lead. “And that was something that I don’t think that leadership paid enough attention to and was very flat-footed about. They weren’t very proactive about it.”

Employees said the culture of the Diablo team was shaped at the top and that team leaders had trouble making decisions and standing by them throughout development. They described, in some cases, a siloed culture where it was hard to know what other people were experiencing.

“Diablo IV” initially began development over five years ago. Under the leadership of director Luis Barriga alongside lead designer Jesse McCree, employees described a sense of inertia as large parts of the game would be worked on and then revamped and decisions stalled out. A battle royale mode for the game was discarded early on. McCree and Barriga did not respond to a request for comment.

Some employees attribute delays to McCree, who they say had a tendency to micromanage and a scattered approach to development. McCree would grow intrigued by different aspects of the game and then lose interest and hand it off to other people without finishing what he started. Employees said once McCree was fired in the wake of the companywide lawsuit, after the initial shock to the team, they reverted some of the changes he had requested.

“You could tell that they [McCree and Barriga] weren’t very confident, there wasn’t a lot of vision for the game,” said a former Blizzard employee. “They were changing their minds a lot, sometimes without even giving things a fair shot, like over the weekend. This started to really slowly start to burn people out.”

Before the covid-19 pandemic, there was a weekly beer share on Fridays run by McCree for the team to socialize. But several former employees said only beer drinkers, and specifically those bringing the right kinds of beers, were comfortable attending.

In August of 2021, Barriga and McCree were fired, according to several current employees at the time. The company confirmed the departures but did not share the reason for the firings. McCree had been publicly photographed in 2013 alongside Alex Afrasiabi, who had been named in the 2021 lawsuit and fired in June of 2020 over multiple allegations.

The most upsetting management decision for many employees came from Barriga’s pick for creative director, Sebastian Stępień. Stępień, who had been brought on in 2019 to revise the game’s story, was previously creative director on the “The Witcher 3” and head writer on “Cyberpunk 2077.” His decisions were a source of turmoil for the Diablo team, some employees say. While the practice of starting work and then scrapping it if it wasn’t up to par was common at Blizzard, employees said “Diablo IV” underwent a series of particularly disturbing revisions to the script. Stępień did not respond to a request for comment.

In meetings held with Stępień, employees faced various setbacks, which delayed the story’s development for months, according to five current and former employees. Although Stępień had held a creative director title before, his background was more in cinematic directing than in game mechanics, and he approached “Diablo IV” from the perspective of taking the entire game and rewriting it himself.

In 2019, many Blizzard employees were disgusted by a version of the game’s script that repeatedly mentioned the rape of a love interest and referred to this female character as the raped woman as her primary description. Stępień had spent months working on this script, penning it in Polish and having a translator change it to English, according to several employees. Employees pleaded with leadership to revise his version of the story, saying rape had no place in a Blizzard game. Many expressed discomfort with the idea of adding rape to the game in what they considered to be an effort to make “Diablo IV” feel grittier and tonally darker than the previous game, rather than engaging with the subject in a sensitive way.

Two employees recalled to The Post a line in the 2019 version of the game’s script that was written as, “And then she was raped, brutally.” Employees would repeat the punctuation — comma, period — out loud to each other, alarmed by the direction Stępień had gone with the script.

“Rape has no place in the ‘Diablo’ universe,” said a former employee. “It’s not a thing that we should be tackling because it takes a certain amount of nuance and a deft hand.”

The “rape version,” as multiple employees called the script, was ultimately overhauled in the same year, and the female character was cut from the story.

Blizzard spokesperson Reynolds told The Post that “the story in question was floated more than three years ago under different leadership as character backstory, not game content. At that time, it was deemed inappropriate, and we went in a different direction. We remain confident in the team — they’re building something incredible, and have received a lot of positive feedback from players.”

Several current and former employees also found the representation and depiction of women in “Diablo IV” to be uninspired, particularly the game’s antagonist, Lilith, Queen of the Succubi. Some women in the game are relegated to traditional gender roles, or undermined by their proximity to a man.

“The story is just mid when it comes to diversity topics,” said a current Blizzard Albany employee, using slang meaning mediocre. “It doesn’t really do anything special there at all, or much of anything. I had complaints about the way we handle Lilith, I think we’ve turned her into someone who’s less interesting as a villain than she could be, if handled by a better writer.”

‘Throwing bodies at the problem’

“Diablo IV” had multiple internal, unannounced release dates. At one point, 2021 was floated as an internal goal. A more specific date emerged — December 2022 — after the title was publicly announced in 2019 at the company’s annual gaming convention BlizzCon. Developers appealed for more time to avoid massive cuts to the game. After moving the date to April 2023, the team felt it still needed more time and was able to get the June date approved.

The June date feels harder to move, several employees say.

“We’re at the point where they’re not willing to delay the game anymore,” said a current Blizzard Albany employee. “So we all just have to go along and figure out how much we’re willing to hurt ourselves to make sure the game gets released in a good enough state.”

Blizzard did not comment on “Diablo IV’s” release dates.

“The problem with games like Diablo is that they are actually quite content heavy,” said a former longtime Blizzard employee, who added that the Diablo team’s desire to break free from “Diablo III” meant finding new solutions to systems that the previous installment had already established. “You can only do so much to power through all those environments, monsters and character animations. Blizzard quality isn’t something you can throw people at.”

To help get “Diablo IV” over the finish line, Activision Blizzard enlisted industry veterans known for shipping games on time: video game industry veteran Rod Fergusson and Vicarious Visions, now known as Blizzard Albany.

Employees described Fergusson, now in charge of the entire Diablo series, as holding regular weekly Zoom meetings he dubbed the “Rodcast,” where several hundred people would join. Fergusson would discuss movies he enjoyed or celebrities he had spent time with. He would also address the team’s problem with attrition and share employee survey results, but employees felt that not much actually came out of these discussions. Fergusson did not reply to a request for comment. Blizzard did not comment.

“To me, he came off as a bit of a clout chaser about where he came from, like ‘Gears of War,’” said a former employee. “People got frustrated because we all thought he was gonna come in and fix the game. And when nothing happened, that’s when you started to see this massive turnover.”

Activision acquired Vicarious Visions in 2005, but it was not until April 2021 that it fully merged the brands, and changed Vicarious’s name to Blizzard Albany. The studio had a reputation for shipping games on time, and was known for its work on series including Guitar Hero and Crash Bandicoot.

In August of 2021, the former studio head of Vicarious Visions, Jen Oneal, was promoted to Blizzard co-leader alongside Mike Ybarra, who joined Blizzard in 2019. Three months later, Oneal stepped down.

As reported last year by the Wall Street Journal, Oneal complained to Blizzard’s legal team that she was discriminated against and underpaid compared to Ybarra. She did not return requests for comment.

Vicarious Visions employees said no one could have predicted what becoming part of Blizzard would entail: the ongoing lawsuits, the loss of the Vicarious Visions name and logo, and the allegations of how Oneal was treated.

“You’re like, ‘Man, I feel like I’m working for the bad guys,’” said the female former Blizzard Albany employee. “I feel like any work I do is tainted by this name.”

Bringing on Vicarious helped with production, though the process to merge the teams was bumpy. Adding a new team that had less experience on the Diablo series with few plans for managing the integration led to difficulties around duplicate work. Blizzard did not comment on merging the teams.

Last year, developers in Albany and Irvine were working on a battle pass and a Season Journey for “Diablo IV.” The Season Journey, which also existed in “Diablo III,” was supposed to challenge players at the end of each chapter. But over time, it morphed into a second battle pass. Eventually, the team judged that the two were duplicates, and ultimately cut one of the battle passes, scrapping work.

“At a certain point, throwing bodies at the problem does not solve the problem,” said a current Blizzard Albany employee, about Blizzard’s strategy of buying more studios to aid development. “If you add them late enough in the project, it doesn’t … matter that you hired an entire studio, because they’ll never be up to date in time to help on the shipping game. So all you’ve done is hire people who are going to work on the expansion.”

Employees are mixed on whether the final, finished product will sate fans and be fun to play.

Some said it would be fun, while others suggested that review scores for the game would come out to be mediocre but passable. Most agreed that crunching to hit a specific release date resulted in a strained development process that could impact the quality of the game, but more importantly, the health of employees.

“You’re not getting shot at right now,” the male former team lead said. “Why are you stressing everybody out? Somebody’s not at an operating table. You’re not in an emergency room. You don’t need to put that amount of stress on it.”