Riot backs new studio founded by former WoW designer who was ‘unhappy with the state of the game’

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Chris Kaleiki, a former game designer on World of Warcraft who said he was “unhappy with the state of the game” after quitting Blizzard entertainment last year, has announced the launch of a new venture called Notorious Studios, backed by a few investors, one of which is League of Legends and Valorant developer Riot Games.

Riot's investment in Notorious Studios was part of a $5 million injection that also includes venture capital funds Galaxy Interactive and 1Up Ventures, according to VentureBeat. Kaleiki said Riot's decision to back the studio reflects a shared commitment to their players and communities.

“I think they’re a developer who cares a lot about the player’s experience as well,” he told the site. “They have a franchise that’s beloved by players. We have so many friends and colleagues who work at Riot, who used to work at Blizzard. I’ve always had a good view of them.”

Notorious Studios' founding team of eight is made up entirely of Blizzard veterans, all but one of whom worked on WoW, and Kaleiki said on Twitter that as he was planning his next move he wanted to ensure he joined a team with “cultural values” similar to those he experienced while at Blizzard. 

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“After evaluating my options, it became apparent that a few of my cherished colleagues at Blizzard who I worked together [with] for years were looking for a similar next step in their own careers,” he tweeted. “So we set out together to do something crazy: start our own studio together.”

Kaleiki specified that the cultural values he was referring to were things like prioritizing “the player experience,” a clarification that makes his statements a little less shocking given the present context, but still dramatically out of touch. As we've been learning since July, Blizzard's “cultural values” allegedly fostered a work environment rife with discrimination and sexual misconduct. A California lawsuit and employee reports have resulted in the dismissal of multiple highly-placed employees including former president J. Allen Brack and World of Warcraft designer Jonathan LeCraft. Blizzard has also changed multiple NPC and location names in its games to eliminate references to abusers.

Kaleiki said that the “challenges” facing Blizzard have “been really troubling [and] hard to hear about,” and said Notorious will have “no tolerance for harassment and things like that.” The studio aims to avoid similar situations by “aspiring to a flatter structure,” which Kaleiki believes will make it more “transparent and open.”

“None of us are leads or directors,” he said. “Previously in our careers we were all individual contributors. We were the ones who’d just build or code or make art or design things. We aspire to have that flatter structure where we don’t have a rigid hierarchy. Harassment usually comes from a subordinate-superior sort of relationship. We’re hoping that flatter structure can address some of those problems.”

But how effective that system will be in practice is an open question. Valve is the most notable game development company to claim to have a philosophy of hierarchical flatness, but reports over the years have cast doubt as to whether Valve's structure is truly different from that of other companies. In 2013, former Valve hardware developer Jeri Ellsworth said the company's flat structure actually contains a “hidden layer of powerful management,” while in 2018 a former employee of a “self-organizing” company based in Bellevue, Washington which is assumed to be Valve said the structure encouraged ruthless internal politics.

Kaleiki didn't specify what exactly Notorious Studios will be doing for its first project, but said in the introduction video that “key elements of the game stem from our shared passions as a team, which include core RPG fantasy, multiplayer gameplay, and great combat.” He was a little more specific with VentureBeat, describing the project as a multiplayer, third-person RPG, although whether or not it will be a full-on MMO remains to be seen. On Twitter, Kaleiki said that he hopes to be able to share more information about the game “sooner than later.”

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