Kaeo Milker has enjoyed a long and eye-opening career at Blizzard Entertainment: QA, facilities management, recruiting and, now, heading up the company’s big MOBA franchise, Heroes of the Storm. You’re probably more likely to follow his advice than follow him down a lane, though; although he’s the captain of the Heroes ship, he’s quick to admit that you won’t find him at the top of the game’s leaderboards. We caught up with Kaeo at this year’s BlizzCon, and he gave some excellent advice about how to manage what you think you should do as a career versus what you’d love to do as a career.
Name: Kaeo Milker
Location: Irvine, California
Current gig: Production Director, Heroes of the Storm
Current computer: a “Blizzard-specced machine”
One word that best describes how you work: Triage
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I took a very long and windy road to get here. My undergrad, I went to school to be a veterinarian. That was my path that I was going down. I was an animal science major in college and… it’s a very different path where I am now. I love video games, though, and I love Blizzard.
Blizzard was the pinnacle for me. I lived in Southern California and I found out they were hiring for game testers for Warcraft 3, and I basically quit another career and came into Blizzard to try to get my foot in the door and see what it was all about.
I had no idea what video game development was. There were not a lot of resources then; there weren’t really things you could study in school, necessarily, that would take you down the path of game development, because it was still pretty young industry at that point.
I loved it. I wanted to see what it is. I wanted to be a part of it. And I basically did anything. They were just testing games, and that parlayed into a bizarre role of recruiting-slash-facilities management. Every opportunity given to me, I just was trying to do the best job I could — be kind and collaborative to everybody that I came across, and make sure that people knew me as just a hard-working nice person that they wanted to be around.
As opportunities unfolded — as the company grew — there were more and more things that I was getting responsibility for. And I did my best not to screw all those things up along the way. And I think I continue to get rewarded with more responsibility over time, for just proving myself as a valuable person in this organisation.
Take us through a recent workday.
A typical Monday, I’m coming into the office. First thing, I have a director’s meeting with the leadership team of my game itself. So I sit down with that group of people and we basically just talk about everything that’s on our mind coming back from the weekend. We play the game a lot, so we talk about the game itself; we talk about our challenges from the week before. We start aligning on the things we want to make sure we’re all conscious of as we move into the work weekend — all the crazy things that are going on with our game and its development.
That’s a very collaborative process. While I’m the senior-most developer on the team, I rely heavily on a technical director, the lead of engineering team, an art director, and two design leads. We all work really closely together to keep track of the game and make sure we’re all staying on the right things at any moment in time.
That goes into a leadership meeting for Blizzard that I go to. I step out of the Heroes portion of it, and it’s a bunch of leaders from across the game teams and across Blizzard having a similar conversation that I just had about my Heroes team, but now we’re talking about Blizzard as a whole. I get a lot of perspectives and insights and input from them, and have the opportunity for me to raise challenges and questions and also listen to the things that they’re bringing up. So it’s, again, a very collaborative, very supportive environment, with a lot of people who genuinely care about not just the work that we’re doing on our individual games, but what what the collective work of the company is at any given moment.
And then I go into a series of meetings — a lot of meetings. Actually, we fight against meetings. We want meetings to be short and effective, and we don’t want any more meetings than what we need to have, but I am getting kicked into a lot of them. Some of them are informational, where I’m a fly on the wall, just trying to pay attention and hear what everybody’s talking about.
A lot of it is challenges of creative things or prioritisation calls that we’re trying to make across the game. A lot of interaction with external teams too, so I might bounce from a design meeting where I’m focused on Heroes, the game, to a meeting with our our web and mobile team, or talking about our new forums that are going to roll out, and then go into a lot of one-on-ones. I have a lot of direct reports, people who work with me, but I also want to talk to everybody on our team.
It’s really important to me to stay in contact with them. I’ll hear their perspectives on the game, on the way we’re running the team in the game, so that we can all kind of align to do the best work possible. This is a creative environment and Blizzard is fuelled by people’s passions. It’s really important that people are motivated and excited. And that’s the only way that we’re all able to do this magic that is game development, where you’re kind of just making stuff out of the ether.
And that leads into my lunches, which usually our one-on-one lunches as well. I’ll go to lunch with someone and we’ll just be talking about career development, the games, or a big challenge that we’re dealing with at that moment in time. That’s a lot of digging deep into the problem of the moment. And production is a lot of problem-solving: Just working a problem, focusing on the right thing, and making our way through it.
We have play test every day. So a chunk of my day will be getting involved in a test, either with the design group, or it could be with our UI team, just getting a snapshot of something tangible that I can log into the game, check out, and give feedback on to make sure that it feels like we’re aligned to the right things.
And then I do a lot of strategic work with outside leaders as well, talking about the overarching course of the game and all the content that we’re aligning to. There’s a lot of meetings with PR, and marketing, and publishing about how we’ve done all this great work with the game, now how do we want to talk about it. What are the moments that we want to be shouting from the rooftops and where do we want to create that anticipation for the next thing that we’re building toward?
What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
There’s all kinds. We use Confluence a lot for many things at Blizzard, so whether it’s make meeting notes, or setting up the stage for a big conversation we want to have directly with people, or exposing things for our entire team they can weigh in on, whether it’s art, or design, our scheduling, everything’s kind of built into there so that we can share information and have a mechanism to track and comment on it.
We have a lot of internally developed tools that we use as well. One of the big ones is something called Play Tester, which is a way for the design team to basically create a list of all the things in a given build that they want people to check out and play — focusing the people’s attention on certain areas of the game.
That tool not only gives us that information, but it allows us to quickly download and play the correct build on the correct correct environment so that we can actually jump in, play the game, and check out those things.
What’s your workspace setup like?
I do a billion things in Excel, even when I have bigger tools at my disposal. My actual workspace is an office with a whole bunch of chairs in it. Usually if I’m in my office, and not on the way to a meeting, it’s an unending stream of people. My door is usually open and people will just come in and talk to me about random things.
We do have white boards, and they are pretty crazy. There’s a lot of stuff on my whiteboard right now that I didn’t erase because it was so chaotic. I was like, “I don’t know what we just did, but it’s kind of beautiful and kind of scary at the same time.”
My job overlaps with the production of the game, so I use Excel for a lot of tracking and visualising things, but my job also intersects with the business of the game, too, so I’m doing a lot of data analysis of things that come from Tableau, like data on the game itself, or data on the business of the game. For my own curiosity, or to answer questions that I have at any given moment, I’m doing a lot of number crunching, and Excel is usually might go-to tool for for doing that
What’s your best shortcut or life hack?
My world is very chaotic, and there’s a lot of things, so it’s going back to a very basic to-do list. When I say triage, it’s about sitting down and prioritising. There are many things that are going to give in a day for me, and so it’s critical for me to identify the things that I want to ensure that I don’t give on, so that I’m making conscious choices of what I’m letting go of and I’m focusing on the things that are most critical for me to actually accomplish today.
So, something as simple as just a basic to-do list — and this is the one thing I write on paper physically, too. Everything else is digital except for this to-do list, so that I’m going back to something tangible and physical that is ultimately guiding me on ensuring that if I do nothing else today, I have to do these things.
What’s your best email hack?
For a very long time, I was driven by rules. I get a lot of mail; I’m copied on a lot of things. So I had not just a lot of rules, like, literally, thousands of rules, I had 17 years worth of rules, because I never clean them out. They basically just accumulated. But I got to a place where my rules started interacting in a really bad way, and I was losing things, and I actually killed every single rule I had.
Now, even though I get literally thousands of emails, I am filtering my mail manually again. It was a weird thing to go back to, but it’s been better in the end, and it’s also made me a lot more disciplined about what I’m responding to, what I’m reading, and the things that I want push aside—that I’m making a conscious choice to push them aside instead of some rule from 2003 that did it.
Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work.
Heroes makes patches and releases constantly. At any moment, there might be three or four or five releases in simultaneous parallel development, and we get to the point where we want to lock those things down as we approach actually launching them to the public. To do that, we start closing gates off.
Many developers do this stuff, but for us, we used to have a thing called “silver ticket,” which was the path to “golden ticket”. Once you get to golden ticket, nothing changes without an approval. Like, “I got a golden ticket, I can change this now.” We had to extend that, though, because we weren’t very disciplined about sticking to golden ticket — so we created silver ticket.
Today, that process is very, very curated. At any moment, we’re stampeding towards locking down a build so that we can release it. And because we don’t change our dates on anything here — basically, the game patches on a regular cadence — the question is “What’s going to be in the patch? Did all the things that we wanted to do make it? Or did we yank a whole bunch of them out because we didn’t have time for them?” The game’s still going to patch, it’s just a question of what’s inside of that patch.
This process by which we arrive at our final release candidate, which is a version of the build that’s actually going to go out to the public, is insane. It’s just so much wrangling from a lot of people to to make sure that we lock ourselves out and close off every spigot of stuff that pours into that in time to release it.
It never ends. We do that process today, and we’re starting into golden ticket mode on the next one immediately because Heroes releases are so close together. Our Live Operations team lives in perpetual state of release finalization. For anybody who finalises releases, that’s not a fun state to live in, but they’re mastering it and are really, really good at it.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
It takes village to make a game. I rely on everybody, from my leadership team, to other directors on my team, to every producer. Again, as as the Production Director, I’m ultimately overseeing the pipelines for the game, our structure and strategy of the way we’re actually developing it. I have a team of producers at every level, going from associate producers to lead producers, that I trust to carry forth the timelines while also maintaining something very special to Blizzard. We don’t ship things until they’re ready.
Heroes moves very fast, so we have to this weird alchemy of how do we maintain Blizzard quality at the same time as moving incredibly quickly and releasing all the time. And it was a very different thing for us. We had to change our mentality and our workflow and our tools, everything had to change around that notion. And the production team is really the glue that holds it all together and keeps people honest,
Production at Blizzard is not like this authority that comes in and says, “You must do this and you must do it now.” I kind of call us “opportunistic enablers”. It’s about looking for those moments that we can help, that we can speed things up, that we can remove the roadblocks, that we can unblock people on, facilitate communication, everything we can do to keep the machine moving. And so production is the biggest part of that.
What’s your favourite side project?
It’s not really a side project, But for me, it’s like a real shifting gears: Blizzcon.
We create these moments where we want to talk about a lot of things for our game, and it’s a celebration to me, really, because we work on all this stuff, and there’s a couple of times a year that we get the biggest platforms possible that we can speak to them.
Now we’re physically here at Blizzcon on a Friday, and that’s the magical time where we get to meet the players, and we get to talk to the journalists, and watch the esports, and all these things become real to us. It’s not the work anymore, it’s the result of all that work and it’s a really special time to celebrate
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I grew up with parents who were really passionate about their jobs. Their jobs weren’t about money, it was about something that they were excited to get up every morning and go to.
My veterinary path was me trying to go, “Well, I need to be professional. So this is professional, and I love animals, and it’s good, it’s all going to work out.” But there was this moment where I had this turning point of, “Should I go down this path of video games or continue down that?”
I talked to them, and they reiterated to me, “You need to follow your passions. That’s what we’ve always done, and we would encourage you to do that as well.” And I had to make some difficult life choices at that moment to change my path. I started from nothing, and there were no guarantees that this was all going to go anywhere at all. But having that support to just go, “You have to go for these things, this is important”—it transformed me.
What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?
There’s nothing that we do that I ever say, “Cool. We’re done with that. Check that box, we’re done, and let’s move on to something else.” It’s always a question of, “What if we try that?”
I love that. That part of it is exciting work. I’d get really bored, I think, if I mastered game development. That challenge never goes away. On one hand, you never get some permanent sense of satisfaction, like, “I mastered it! I did it!” But that quest to get better, and see the constant improvements, is so satisfying.
How are your skills as a Heroes of the Storm gamer, and do you feel you have to maintain those because you kind of run the ship?
As a producer, it’s not like I’m a balance designer and that my job is to competitively balance the game. I lean into that a little bit, because I am not by any means the best Heroes player in the world. I do play a lot of Heroes of the Storm; I’ve played, like, 7,000 games. I play pretty much every night for a couple hours. I sacrifice sleep to play Heroes. I genuinely enjoy the game and have a lot of fun with it, but I’m a very average player.
I had an experience at Gamescom, just in August, where they put me on stage with Team Liquid, a pro team, and members of Dignitas, another pro team. And there I was, and it was atrocious. I was so apologetic to them, and they’re like, “No, it’s cool, we’ll play with you,”and I’m like, “Oh, don’t do this to me ever again.”
I think there’s this thing of like, “Hey, you’re not good at the game, so how can you make it,” but for most of the things I’m making calls on, how good I am has no bearing on it. It’s more about me looking at the big picture of the game and thinking about what’s important and hearing the feedback from players.
Do you have a favourite Heroes of the Storm character?
We released a character named Blaze in January. Usually I’ll play a new hero until the next hero comes out, and I’ll bounce around. I’ve been playing Blaze almost nonstop since January, which is kind of insane. I just fell in love his his kit, the way his abilities interact. He also has a lot of sustain and escapes and things so he doesn’t die a lot. In Heroes, one of the best things you can do to be a better player is to stop dying.