Monday, April 4, 2011

How I left Blizzard

Blizzard doesn't tend to be very open about how and why people move around at the company, and I still have people asking me what happened, so for those interested I thought I'd share my story.

As far as I know, nothing I'm writing here is confidential, so please tell me if that's not the case.

To understand something of the story, I really should start at the beginning...

After the Wrath of the Lich King launch, I was looking to move on to something new. I loved Blizzard and I didn't want to leave the company, but I wanted to work on a smaller team, a smaller project, with more responsibility. Unexpectedly, a job opened up for technical lead on a small unannounced project that was getting underway. It was a small project, with a short timeframe, at least for Blizzard, and it was a project that I personally was very interested in. I applied, and at the beginning of 2009 I was the engineering lead on a new unannounced Blizzard game!

I was very excited, and spent the first few months researching engine technology, getting some of the  infrastructure set up, and worked with the producer on a detailed technical plan for the project.  After that, since the designers had a solid idea for the game and were making great progress in the prototype, I started work on proving out the gameplay systems and hiring the most urgent engineering positions.

Come July 2009, the company sounded a call to arms to help Battle.net get ready for the Starcraft II launch. There was much to do and each team loaned a person or two to help out. Since our team was so small, most of us went to help out, including our producer and UI artist. We kept a small crew of designers, an artist and our newly hired graphics engineer to keep the project alive during our tour of duty on Battle.net.

We kicked butt, took names, and Starcraft II launched smoothly a year later with Battle.net 2.0.

During the course of that year, our producer was promoted to lead Battle.net producer, and the designers made great strides in evolving the game design and the gameplay model. The graphics engineer had completed the core of the graphics engine and was roughing out the tools pipeline and content creation system.

When we returned from Battle.net, I jumped right on getting our AI/gameplay engineer up to speed on the gameplay systems and started the herculean task of migrating code I had already finished over to the new gameplay model and tools systems that were developed while we were gone.

Three months later that work was being wrapped up, and I was called in to a meeting and told that there were issues on the team.  I had just worked out some issues with my gameplay engineer, but there were issues beyond that, which they needed to follow up on to give me concrete feedback.

Over the next week I implemented a great suggestion from them which improved my communication, our part-time producer led technology goal and milestone meetings which I had requested and were very helpful, I worked on a clear division of labor and responsibility among the team, and I had one-on-one meetings with all of my engineers to see how things were going.  As far as I could tell morale was improved, things were going great with my gameplay engineer, and we had a clear plan for the future.

I was feeling great, and was told that even though things had improved, there were still unspecified issues that were being looked into.  The meeting was very uncomfortable as though something were being danced around, so I mentioned that if the leadership of the team thought it was best, I was willing to step down.  The meeting suddenly relaxed and I got nervous.

A few days later, I was asked to interview someone for technical leadership of the team!  I asked for the chance to talk to whoever was having problems, and was told that would be awkward.  A few days after that it was confirmed that they had already made the decision to have me step down, but that the team leadership was there to help me succeed however they could.

So after a little primal scream therapy, I sat down and really thought about what went right, what went wrong, and what really was important to me.

One of the factors that I think contributed was that we hired really experienced people in the industry, and I hadn't had experience building a small game from the ground up.  Instead of mandating how things should be done, or bringing a set of best practices, I tried to work collaboratively to help us develop the best tools and approaches for our unique needs.  I think this was a creative and good way for us to go given our talents, but I think it increased stress and was possibly interpreted as weakness on a team already feeling time pressure.

So, assuming that was a factor, and since I honestly did not know how other game companies work, I set out on a quest to tour the industry and learn as much as I could about how companies other than Blizzard operate.  I was interested in everything including technology, development processes, team composition, project planning, and business relationships.

I want to stop here and thank everyone who helped me in this quest.  Lots of companies opened their doors and under NDA showed me everything that I wanted to learn about.  Blizzard management too, went way above and beyond the call of duty and introduced me to people who could help me learn about the industry.  I learned that there are a ton of great companies out there, and lots of good ways to approach things.  Thank you all! <3 :)

Armed with a good perspective on the industry and how games are developed, I looked back over how we set up our project and came to the conclusion that it was entirely reasonable, from a tech perspective, and felt comforted.

With that awesome tour completed, I turned my attention back to my future.  My options were to stay on the team as an engineer, transition to another team at Blizzard, leave and start my own venture, or join another company in the industry.

I realized I didn't really want to stay on my team, because even though I love the team and I still think it's an awesome project, I didn't feel like I got any support in that role from management, and I never was told why I was asked to step down.  I don't feel like it was personal, that the management really was trying to do the right thing for the team, but I still didn't want to stay in that environment.

I thought a lot about joining another team at Blizzard, or joining another company, but I realized that after launching Wrath of the Lich King, booting engineering on a new team, and shipping new Battle.net on StarCraft II, all in less than two years, I was starting to feel burned out.  I also looked at myself and realized that sometime in the last ten years I had become a family man, and what I wanted to do more than anything else in the world was spend time with my family.

I took a deep breath and relaxed, feeling my shoulders unclench and my face break out in a smile, and knew I had made the right decision.

17 comments:

  1. Wow, great post Sam. I knew you were working on SDL but didn't realize it was your full-time job - I thought you were still with Blizzard!

    It's too bad that things didn't work out with you and the team. When I worked with you I felt like there was great team synergy and you did a great job of managing our tasks and responsibilities, especially considering all the work you were doing with the non-prototype game engine! Just wanted to let you know you did a commendable job and really pushed me to make an awesome AI.

    Best of luck moving forward with SDL, and please do stay in touch!

    -Your former Summer Intern AI programmer :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hello, I'm just a visitor who has long wanted to enter the area of game development ...

    I loved the post because I could have a vision of the area looking for so long ... something that had no basis of how it worked! If it were possible I would like to read more posts about the area in general ... on development methodologies and design of a lifetime!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for sharing your experience, sounds like a rough one, and it sounds like you made the right choice. Also, thanks for all of your awesome work on SDL, been happily using it for years. Wish you all the best.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you so much for sharing this story with us!

    ReplyDelete
  5. PS: If you would like to go back and tell us how you got the Blizzard job in the first place or where you were coming from before that, I'm sure I wouldn't be the only one to gladly listen! :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Sounds like you did the right thing, my friend! *hugs*

    ReplyDelete
  7. I'm proud to be your cousin, cuz! Love to you.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Wow, Sam, you seem to have survived a difficult and disappointing situation with your integrity intact. Good work taking the high road; I'm really proud of you! Your daughters have an awesome daddy.
    Deanne

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thanks Alicia! Love to you too. :)

    Thanks Deanne. It was a challenging situation, but by all accounts the team and project are doing well, and it certainly ended up better for me. :)

    See ya!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Sam Lantinga, best of luck! May you always have the judgement to face new situations with such integrity.

    - Random SDL user

    ReplyDelete
  11. Hey Sam,

    Thanks for sharing this. It's interesting to hear how people are treated up there in the skyscraper metaphor... also interesting to hear of someone who has a uniquely different set of skills and that you're so open about what you don't know. Loving SDL, by the way.

    Nick

    ReplyDelete
  12. Wow, this is a very old post but extremely inspiring. Sam you are a GENIUS, SDL is just "OUTSTANDING". I am not a game developer, but an enterprise/business end one; more inclined to web development, application development, databases, etc, recently I have been made IT Manager and I find it quite interesting and challenging and your experiences are inspiring. Like you, I always tend to prefer custom design of tools and apps but it also puts me in controversy with upper management which prefer that I use non-expandable/non-optimizable frameworks and proprietary tools so that we can meet our deadlines (at the cost of quality) so I completely get you. Anyhow I just want to congratulate you in your decision and wish you the best of luck with the greatest multimedia framework on the market (the great SDL).

    ReplyDelete
  13. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete