Even the mightiest chieftain has to start out as a wood-cutting grunt.

Today, Blizzard is one of the biggest companies in gaming and celebrating its 25th anniversary. It is supporting modern hits like Hearthstone, World of Warcraft, and Overwatch. However, before the release of World of Warcraft in 2004, Blizzard was a much smaller developer. This was also around the time Kaeo Milker joined the company as a tester for Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, the real-time strategy game that was then in development.

Milker worked his way up from that low spot in the company. Today, he is a production director on Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard’s multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game. We had a chance to talk to Milker about his long journey with the developer, which also gives us insight into that intense period of growth at the company.

A Warcraft statue at Blizzard's headquarters in Irvine, Calif.

Above: A Warcraft statue at Blizzard’s headquarters in Irvine, California.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: I understand you’ve been at Blizzard for 14 years. You started with an entry level position and worked your way up. Can you talk about your journey with the company?

Kaeo Milker: It’s a crazy journey. I’ll hit 15 years here at the beginning of September. It’s gone by in the blink of an eye. If you go back to the beginning, like so many people at Blizzard, I was a very passionate Blizzard gamer. I had the fantasy of, I’d love to make games. I had no idea what making games meant.

Fifeteen years ago, society in general had even less of an idea what making games meant. For me it was like, I love games, I love Blizzard, my dream job would be at Blizzard. But I had no experience or marketable skills necessarily. I just had a lot of passion to get my foot in the door here.

I was lucky enough to be located in Orange County at the time, and Blizzard was in Irvine then as well. They were hiring for QA (quality assurance) testers for Warcraft III. It was 2001. Back then the way QA worked was it was a very small team of dedicated people, and then they would hire in contract workers to come in for three or six months. You’d come in, test the game, help them get it out the door, and then everyone would go away at the end of the contract. Even then it was a very — the opportunity was cool, I could get in at Blizzard testing games, but maybe it’s over in a month, maybe in four months, just see how it goes. It was kind of scary.

At the time I had a career and a mortgage and all these things, but I said, screw it, I have to take a shot at this and see. Maybe nothing comes of it. I get a taste, I get to see behind the curtain a little. I just had to go for it. So I quit my job and I came and took the contract job for WarCraft III.

GamesBeat: What were you doing before?

Milker: I was an operations manager for a big chain of retail stores in Southern California. A very different world.

Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos.

Above: Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: I hear horror stories about testing games. What was it like for you?

Milker: I don’t have any horror stories. We worked incredibly long hours, but what was neat about it — it was a small room full of a lot of very passionate gamers, and we basically just spent a ridiculous amount of time every day pounding on the very early versions of Warcraft III and shepherding it along to its ultimate release in 2002. It was just this room full of cool like-minded people.

Periodically — QA at the time was very separated from development. But developers would pop in and tell us what they were working on, get our ideas. Blizzard was very small at the time. The entire company was smaller than Team 1, which is the strategy team that I’m on making Heroes of the Storm and StarCraft II today. It was a very different, smaller scale world, but it was a very interesting place to be.

I got to see the process and get a glimpse of it from QA, and then be able to every day see what was new going into the game. Massive amounts of new content additions and iteration going on every single day, and QA would be the first people to jump in and test it and get qualitative and quantitative feedback on how things were going. To me it was a really fun process.

Everyone said, oh, you’re getting paid to play games. In reality QA is getting paid to break games, so it’s a different thing than you might imagine. It was hard at the time to try to explain to friends and family what this thing was I just quit my career to do. But it was such a cool thing, to just see how quickly those games came together and how quickly the developers, even then — how critical they were of their work and how hard they worked to refine things and get them as perfect as they could be, which is a difficult challenge when you’re making something like a game out of the ether.

GamesBeat: How did you move up from that position?

Milker: The QA position, like I said, was a contract thing. Every time I was called into the manager’s office, I was like, this is where it all ends. How do I get a job from here? Many of those times I got called in, but I kept sticking around. The process ended up being that I stayed through the completion of Warcraft III, which shipped in July 2002. It was almost a full year of the testing process.

At that point they said, the contract people are done. But for me they said, hey, we’re shipping this game, so now the work goes to tech support. People were going to be calling and writing because they needed help when the game was launched. “Do you want to work on that?” “Do I get to stay here?” “Yes.” “Absolutely!” I could kind of extend your stay of execution a bit longer. Okay, cool, I can do this.

So I transitioned over to tech support, which was in the same room at QA. It was a very small room. Maybe 30 people across QA and tech support for all of Blizzard, which is insane compared to today, where customer service and tech support are literally thousands of people. So I went over to tech support and for the next couple of months I supported the launch of Warcraft III.

Then there was this moment where they said, hey, we’re getting going on this other game, which was World of Warcraft. “Do you want to help start testing that?” “Is this a real job?” “Yes.” “Absolutely!” It was like I get to be a real boy. So I transitioned into getting hired as a full time QA analyst for the early versions of World of Warcraft.

World of Warcraft piccolo of the flaming fire

Above: World of Warcraft was one of the biggest hits in gaming history.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

GamesBeat: That must have been an interesting job, to see that game start from the early days and be developed into what it was.

Milker: It was so cool. It was such a different thing from all the games I had fallen in love with as a player, and having just come off Warcraft III, to see them branching out into the MMO space. It was relatively small at the time. I had played most of the games in the space. But seeing Blizzard’s take, even in the very early incarnations, was exciting.

Before getting that job, I didn’t even know the game was in development. Things were very secretive. That process went on for a while. I stayed in QA and was really excited there, but my whole thing was, I love this company and being a part of this process. The role of QA is exciting. You’re kind of the first eyes and ears on the ground as the game is developed, giving a lot of important feedback on it. I wanted to make a career out of this, but I didn’t know what that means. I didn’t know what the different roles were in game development, because there wasn’t a lot of information about that. It was this black box from the outside. I’d look at it and say, people are in there doing magical things and these amazing games come out. It was hard to imagine the component pieces of that and where I could fit into it.

After doing QA for a while, a role came up in the company which was this very bizarre hybrid. It reflected how small the company was. It was staffing and facilities coordinator. This was literally being the recruiter for Blizzard, like HR (human resources). Going out and sourcing and hiring people. And it was also the building facilities manager. It was a combination role. I would go from interviewing an art director to unclogging the toilets.

But meanwhile what I liked about the job — when I saw it come up I was like, I’d be working with all the leadership of the teams and the company. I’d be working to hire the next generation of talent for the company, which would give me good visibility into all the different roles and responsibilities. It was an opportunity to see a good picture of all the moving pieces and where I might fit in better. I was really excited to take that role. That’s something I did for the next two and a half years at Blizzard.

That was a cool time. World of Warcraft was in development then, so I could do things like building the WoW team up from a smaller team to a much larger team when it ultimately shipped. Building the original customer service team for WoW, which was huge at the time, but went on to be much, much larger than that. Building out the cinematics team.

World of Warcraft salyin battle banner

Above: World of Warcraft in action.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

GamesBeat: World of Warcraft quickly became a big hit. That must have been a race to expand the company.

Milker: Oh, yeah. For all of us. Everybody, everywhere. WoW was this transformative thing for us as a group of people and as an organization. Everything changed when WoW launched and at that moment when WoW just exploded. We were all reeling from that. We spent the next 12 years reeling from that, really, making sure we’re equipped to deal with things at that scale. It was a super exciting time. Such a cool experience to be a part of that, that rapid expansion of growth.

All the while we’re all working incredibly hard to maintain that Blizzard DNA, this very small company feel of a bunch of passionate people working together to make cool stuff. The challenge was always to keep that mindset and keep hiring people who shared the same values as we were growing. It was an amazing time. Such a cool thing to be a part of back then.

GamesBeat: I imagine you were on WoW until StarCraft II was in development?

Milker: The way that happened, I kept doing the staffing and facilities role, built up all these teams along the way. Then there was — at the time I took a role that was called associate producer of creative development. Creative development was Chris Metzen. Just one guy. It was basically being the producer to work with Metzen and help him shepherd along all the projects he had going on, everything from our ancillary stuff like novels and strategy guides to the games that he was leading creatively.

That role was so exciting. So many of these worlds are Metzen’s brain children. To work closely with him and see how he had his fingers in all these things, and even today still does, was another amazing opportunity. I came in at the perfect time. Blizzard was big enough that, as a gamer, it had already captured my imagination, but small enough that as a company and a group of people, we were just at the cusp of the next big thing. It was such a cool era to be able to jump in and tag along.

That role ended up being only about eight months. At that point the Warcraft III team was coming off Frozen Throne. They were starting to ramp up the exploration of what StarCraft II was going to be. Metzen and I were sitting in the same space as team one, the StarCraft and Warcraft III team. The same team did the original Warcraft, Warcraft II, StarCraft, Warcraft III, StarCraft II. It was only about 30 people on the team at the time. But as they started doing very early explorations, they needed a producer for that team. Chris Sigaty, who today is the executive producer of StarCraft II and Heroes of the Storm, he was the lone producer on the project. They started hiring for the producer then, and after those years of hiring for the company and looking at all the various pieces and seeing where I fit in, my project management background combined with how I’d made my way through the company — production seemed like the perfect place for me.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm

Above: Building a base in StaCraft II.

Image Credit: Blizzard

I would love to be a designer, but I was very clear on — the things I was excelling at were organizing things around creative people rather than me being the creative person. That sounded like a really nice fantasy, but my reality was just not aligned to that. Which is perfectly fine. As that project started coming together, Metzen looked at me and said, you should work on StarCraft II. I’m like, we have stuff to do, I should stay in this office. He says, “No, go do StarCraft II. This is awesome.” So I said, okay, I’ll apply for that. And I got the associate producer position on StarCraft II.

What was cool about that, I ended up not even needing to move. I was already sitting right there. What we were doing, basically, we were making StarCraft I in Warcraft III. We were making a mod, a proving ground for what the very early versions of StarCraft II were going to be. I’d come in and we called it a production role, but in those days everybody — they looked at you and said, hey kid, what can you do? I can do this stuff. Cool, go do that stuff. Regardless of what your role was, it was kind of all hands on deck.

I did a lot of data implementation. Our games were very data driven. Then and now we have custom toolsets and stuff we use. I had a lot of experience with web development. I knew HTML, and our data structure was very similar with its markup language. I ended up doing tons of data implementation to build these early prototypes of StarCraft II in Warcraft III, while also coordinating the early versions of our team structure as a producer. That was the beginning of being a producer at Blizzard. That was 11 years ago. That journey has just continued since, with multiple projects. My position morphed all along the way.

I still sit here today, almost 15 years later, looking at this process, and I’m in complete awe of the entire journey. I’m often in meetings where I look around and in my mind I’m still the guy who quit my job to come here and do something. I was almost thinking, I’ll unclog the toilets for you, and little did I know that two years later I really would be unclogging the toilets. But that process is just kind of insane, the way all that stuff goes down now. The journey into production was so crazy. From that early stuff to — I headed up art production for StarCraft II for almost eight years. Did engineering production for StarCraft II on Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm. Then we started working on Heroes of the Storm, which originally just started off as a mod map for StarCraft II.

Heroes of the Storm

Above: A big fight in Heroes of the Storm.

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

GamesBeat: Yeah. It was just called Blizzard DOTA for a while, right? It was named after the mod for Warcraft III that created the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre.

Milker: Yep. Originally we just made it to show off what the editor could do for StarCraft II. The original DOTA [Defense Against the Ancients, a mod that fans made] came out of Warcraft III. Our toolset and our community could build it. We wanted to show you could still make those kinds of game in our latest RTS. We did that just as a proof of concept. People loved it at Blizzcon. We brought it back and they loved it again. So we said, we have to make this its own game.

The point in time when we made a decision on that was right around when Heart of the Swarm wrapped. Then I transitioned over to Heroes and spent the last three years building that from a three-person team to 150-plus person team, making this crazy living breathing game that is Heroes. Releasing patches almost every week and heroes every three or four weeks. It’s just this crazy train of amazing content creation now. It goes on and on in a really fun way.

GamesBeat: You were there in the Warcraft III days. You were there when this stuff was first picking up with DOTA. Was Blizzard paying attention to the early DOTA scene?

Milker: Yeah! A lot of us were paying attention to it just as gamers. We enjoyed the content that was being created by the community. And so much of the Warcraft III custom map scene, or even the original StarCraft scene, was just this vibrant community of very passionate gamers making amazing stuff that we were playing and loving. We were enjoying it more as players at the time. We saw it blow up. That game just — the original DOTA became so huge within Warcraft III. We watched that from afar, because at the time we were still a very small development team. We were staying very small and tight and working on games like Warcraft III. StarCraft II was ramping at the time. Diablo III wasn’t even on the horizon yet. We had very limited bandwidth to do things, and we already had our next steps. But we watched DOTA very closely, even in those days.

Wrecking buildings in Heroes of the Storm.

Above: Wrecking buildings in Heroes of the Storm.

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

GamesBeat: How do you think working on Heroes of the Storm is different from all of your other games you’ve worked on?

Milker: Heroes of the Storm is such a different beast. If you go back, we’re a boxed product company. We made a lot of these great games that we’d work on for years. Then at some point we announce and at another point we release them. It comes out all at once and people engage with it. Maybe every year or two we do an expansion, but after one or two of those we’re done and we move on to something else. Heroes of the Storm is the first game that’s this game as a service, even more so than WoW. WoW is still really on the expansion model. There are really large pieces of content coming every year and a half, two years, somewhere in that time frame along the way. There’s content updates. We always patch all of our games. We’re always trying to add cool new content. But if you look at the content cadence, most of our games have been about expansions.

But Heroes of the Storm, from its inception we knew it was this game as a service. We knew it would be something that we couldn’t just work on for years and then release it and then wait a few more years to release more. We’d have to change the way we thought about making games and the way we approach releasing content and start doing something where it’s coming all the time. It’s a constant influx of new cool stuff. That was a massive switch both in mentality and process. It was a very big culture shock for us as a team to go from making boxed games to making a game as a service like this. But I anticipated that from the time I switched over to start building this team. All the goals, from very early, were about structuring ourselves and setting milestones for us that were all about frequent content delivery. From very early on, we did things like — I pushed to get the game playable for the company from home earlier than we’d ever made any game playable from home before. And then pushed further to get it to something that we ended up calling technical alpha, where we let the public play it.

Historically we wouldn’t have let anyone see the game at that state, but we wanted to get the game live for our purposes so we’d have the pressure to start doing constant content updates and iterate in real time while we were developing new stuff. We could start acquainting ourselves with this new way of life that we were signing up for. It’s taken three years. I think we’re just starting to get good at it. But we’re learning more every day about this process. It’s a totally different animal. Of course, since then we’ve done things with — Hearthstone has come out. Hearthstone is in a similar space where they have a lot of content coming in very frequently, much in the way Heroes does. As a company we had to all learn this. Team by team we’re learning. It’s a different way to live and breathe and make games.

One of HotS's newest characters, Chromie, in action.

Above: One of HotS’s newest characters, Chromie, in action.

Image Credit: Blizzard

GamesBeat: Is the culture any different at the company now that you have so many different teams working on different projects?

Milker: The overall culture of Blizzard is very consistent. We’re very like-minded in our passion for games and for Blizzard games in particular. A lot of people come to this company as huge fans, and so everyone has their own expectations for what a Blizzard game means. We all hold ourselves to this standard as we’re working on them. It’s our personal quality level, what it means to be Blizzard. That’s really consistent.

As a subset of that, each team has its own culture, which is a bit of a pivot on that. Team one is interesting because it’s the original development team at Blizzard. Our core team leaders are people like Sam Didier, the original Blizzard people. Sam’s the original art director who set the tone for almost everything that’s come since. We have these people on team one who are very old school Blizzard. If I look at our team today, we’re in our own building over here. It feels to me the way that Blizzard as an entire company felt 15 years ago, when I started. There’s very much the same feeling. We hold on very tightly to this close-knit group of talented, like-minded people who are really passionate about what we’re doing.

Everyone’s pushing super hard to bring their best foot forward with everything we do, trying to execute to the best of our ability on everything. Which is hard, because there are so many perfectionists here, people with such high standards for everything. It’s amazing to sit back and watch so many of these types of people work together.