Heroes of the Storm's Kaeo Milker on Going From 'Great Game' to 'Great Free-to-Play Game'

Heroes of the Storm is kicking off its '2.0 Update' with a huge overhaul to how players earn items and level up their characters. I talked with producer Kaeo Milker about the transition, esports, free-to-play, and more.


Today Heroes of the Storm kicks off the open beta for its "Heroes 2.0" Update, a massive overhaul of the underlying systems with a big emphasis on letting players earn all the cosmetic items they'd like with the addition of Loot Chests. I talked with Heroes of the Storm producer Kaeo Milker about the changes, and how the company is focusing on turning Heroes into not just a great game, but a great free-to-play experience as well. Check out his thoughts on where that distinction lies, as well as the esports scene and cross-pollination with other Blizzard projects.

With the 2.0 update it seems like there's some cross-pollination between teams–ideas like loot boxes, sprays, things like that. How does that happen? How does the culture work?

It's really rooted in the fact that we're a bunch of gamers. We're all playing games, we play all games. We've been very fortunate in the last couple years to have added a couple of really awesome Blizzard games to the mix in the form of Hearthstone and Overwatch. We all play a lot of them. Hearthstone is our other free-to-play game and it has some mechanics in it that are specific to free-to-play games that they got to explore some spaces that we hadn't done before.

While Heroes is a free-to-play game, when we first went out, we kind of scraped the surface of free-to-play, and we learned a lot from them about how to be a better free-to-play. Some of the choices that we made in Heroes 2.0 is about making sure that people have access to all the cool stuff that we make whether they're spending money or not. That's what I'm really excited about, this reward system of loot chests–which again, it's kind of a hybrid of card pack from Hearthstone and loot box from Overwatch, there are things borrowed from both of those.

We tried to give the best of both worlds, where we gave you this surprise and delight of opening something cool and hoping you get something fun and unique, and being able to give that to you very often, so it's not something you have to wait for but something you get showered with and get to enjoy. We looked at all of those things and thought, what's the best parts of that we can bring into our game?

You said one of the priorities was making it feel like there's more frequent rewards, something a loot box really plays into that. Is it like, you also play Hearthstone and Overwatch and you think, 'oh that's a good idea' or is there some kind of Council of Elrond situation?

It probably feels like that but it's not, really. A lot of these mechanics and ideas are things we've wanted for a really long time–some things we wanted at launch. Some of these things we didn't have time to implement and some we weren't quite sure how we wanted to go. We got to have Hearthstone and Overwatch blaze a trail and say, cool, I like that, that works well, I want to do that, or leave that part out, or pivot it this way. I think more of our experience as players comes into play here than any kind of behind-the-scenes decision at Blizzard. It's much more about what feels good, what do we enjoy, what feels good.

One thing you have to balance more than a lot of other games is the esports scene. You're constantly adding new stuff to your game, but you're also constantly having esports competitions. How do you manage that to make sure you don't throw things into chaos too often but you also reward players?

Our priority is doing what's right for the game, so sometimes that means doing something that might be disruptive to esports. We have one little buffer which is that esports generally plays on a tournament realm, so pro players and esports can be played on a version of the game that might be a version or two behind. There's a little lag there. So if we're in a mode where we're rapidly changing a bunch of things because the game just demands them at that moment, it doesn't have to throw esports into upheaval. They have a little time to catch up and then it will update once we stabilize from the live game.

Something very different about this game though is that we do constant evolution. We do patches every 3-6 weeks, we do major patches on the 6-week mark. We can do balance updates as often as every week and we do them when the time is right. It is changing a lot but that's part of the fun of this game. Something we value in our players is the adaptability. Teams make strategic choices, composition choices, the way they choose to execute–we like to see how they roll with that. So we stabilize enough that they don't feel like they have no ability to focus in and get good at something, but on the other side, the game is moving, and you got to move with it.

Do you loop them in when you're planning? I also follow Hearthstone closely and I know that they've at least once in a while looped in pro players to say, "this is what we're thinking about, what do you think?" Have you done anything like that?

We've reached out to individuals like that. We also try to front some of the ideas that we're kind of kicking around, either on our forums or on Reddit or whatever. We also use our PTR a lot to test things. Actually for Heroes 2.0 it will be a four-week actual beta, where everything from the beta will come into play so they'll be able to check out all the progression changes and balance changes. We're really big on getting that feedback, it's valuable to us.

It feels like you aren't overreacting to the current meta, per se. When you introduce new heroes, it isn't necessarily a response to this other hero that's very popular.

No, no, that's not the world we want to live in. We come from–our team made StarCraft 2, WarCraft 3, some made the original StarCraft, so we have this long history of making very tightly balanced competitive games. The lesson you learn is that knee-jerk reaction is going to throw you into total chaos. And if you listen to that kind of outpouring of sentiment about something being unbalanced, if you immediately just react-react-react to that, you miss out on everything else that happens.

There's a moment of confusion and rejection and then they start embracing it and then they start doing amazing things with it. And we'd never get to that amazing thing if we were always like "okay fine, we'll fix it, we'll fix it." It's a very measured approach we take to this stuff. There's a big difference between something that's broken and something that players just haven't figured out yet. We try to make sure we're approaching it delicately and not undoing the work that we've done. We make all these things knowing that there are things that are going to happen that we haven't imagined yet. It could be amazingly good things, it could be amazingly bad things, but our preferred method is to watch that with minor course corrections rather than sweeping changes. Especially sweeping changes before things are settled.

That's one of those things we were talking about [during our play session]. Cassia's pull from the back-row is going to be something that everybody calls overpowered for the first weeks until they figure it out. Do you have those discussions? You know, "I bet this will make the meta do this," or "I bet this will make people think this."

We try to have those conversations but it's so weird how, when you get this to scale with tons of players–even with our team, we have hundreds of players on our team, playing this constantly, all about playtest–and then that barely touches on what happens when we take it to the company at large playing. And then that barely touches when we have one day of PTR on our game. It's just crazy how surprising it is, and we've been doing this long enough to know that we don't know.

So you find it hard to predict.

Yeah, our thing is that we want to make these tool kits to hand players and watch what we do with them. And we're watching at the extreme ends of that stuff, to make sure there's nothing bad coming out of it. We're constantly surprised by the good that comes out of it. I'm more surprised by the good things than the bad things. You kind of know when you get into bad territory, but when someone combos something or they do something amazing you didn't anticipate or wasn't by design. This game keeps growing every 3-4 weeks and we add new heroes, which gives you one extra thing in their tool chest. Watching the meta shift is really fascinating and rewarding.

From a branding or marketing perspective–my background is in marketing, so I'm fascinated by that side of the industry–this feels like a soft relaunch. Get new players, get back lapsed players, that sort of thing. Was that an objective or was it, while putting these tools together you thought, this is enough stuff that we should put a name on it?

It's a combination of those things. As we've gone along, this is a game we've been working on constantly and we've made massive improvements to, and I think the people who have been here the whole way, they see this as practically a relaunch moment. They give us this feedback. And we think, oh, that's cool, there's a lot of good stuff coming in.

But for us, Heroes 2.0 is where we finally felt like these core components, most notably for this free-to-play stuff, was like: let's be good at free-to-play. Let's actually give them access to the stuff in our game, and so they don't have to pay money for it. Let's have progress that rewards all the time. That was something that was valuable to us and as players we weren't getting that out of the game, we knew that. We were looking for an opportunity to do it. I'm someone who plays the game every single day for hours a day. I do that without this stuff right now, but this adds an extra layer on it where I always feel like I'm accomplishing something, getting something back.

And it feels nice, to unwrap a little gift.

Yeah, I mean, it's fun. There are people who stream just opening card packs in Hearthstone or opening loot boxes in Overwatch because it's fun to watch, hey, what did I get? That surprise is a cool experience, especially when you get stuff that's actually cool, good stuff in the game. This is a really cool moment for us, the game is in such a better place than what it was. So we are taking this moment to say, hey, check us out. If you didn't before, check us out now. And if you ever did check us out along the way, come look at it again, see all the amazing things we've done. It really is a different animal than it was at launch. It's exponentially different now. It was always a great game, it was always a fun game, it's just building all the things around it now that make it a great free-to-play game.

I think that's a key takeaway here. Now it's a "great free-to-play game," specifically. I want to pick your brain about what you see as the distinction and how you've seen the free-to-play market change since Heroes launched.

My team, and Blizzard as a whole, have predominantly made boxed products over the years. As a team, we would work on a product, for many many years as Blizzard fans know. It takes a long time to make a Blizzard game. We'd work on them, we'd release them, and then, whew, we're done. Then in two years we'll release an expansion, and that will be something that augments and adds new content and it's a big level up. Depending on the game, maybe there's multiple expansions, maybe there's only one, and then you go on to another game.

We knew that Heroes was going to be free-to-play, we were going to spend a considerable amount of time transitioning from a boxed product to a games as service, which means we're always adding new stuff. That was a huge shift for us, it took us a long time, and I think we're just getting good at it now. This is three years after we really went to alpha, where we were operating it like a live game.

That's a big shift, but the next thing is, what's a free-to-play game? Well, you can play it and you don't have to spend any money. We had that, you didn't have to spend any money. But there's this whole other world to it, where like, the vast majority of free-to-play players don't spend any money, because you don't have to. That's what brings in these huge numbers of players. So for us looking at it, we were like, it is technically free-to-play, but I think people come in and say, there's stuff that I want access to that I don't have access to. There's this entire section of the game that I can't play at all unless I spend money. We looked at that and said, let's open this thing up. We've made so much amazing content and only a fraction of our players have seen it. So this idea that we could expand the reach of all this, give people access to it, that's really exciting to us.

And again, it's not what we're used to. What we're used to is a box where you pay your money and we say "here's everything!" You paid your money and we give you a box that has everything and you're done. This is a thing that's like, we're doing that but without the box. That's exciting because, we make games for people to play them. That's what you do as a game developer. Our focus is not about a business model or monetization, our focus is on making a great game. So this gives us tools to have as many people as possible see all the cool things in our game. It's a really cool opportunity for us and something I wish we'd had in the beginning, so I'm really glad we have it now.

The hardcore gaming circle has an instinctive, gut reaction to the phrase, "free-to-play." It has a bit of a bad reputation. I think Blizzard is better than most at doing it right, but what do you see as the reason that gamers have that recoiling reaction and how have you avoided it?

There's a lot of perceptions, a lot of realities too, of games–particularly mobile games, because a lot of free-to-play has historically been on mobile–that there are things built in to the game that the point is really to corner you into a point in time where you have to spend money. There is a perception of that and I've certainly played games that I've felt that way.

That's not our intention with Heroes. It never was. If there was a time that someone felt that way it would have been, there's a thing that I want, and I cannot get it. If I want this amazing skin, it's killer, I love Uther, I love the Judgement armor set, but I can't get it. I will just never be able to get it without spending money. There's something about that just inherently doesn't feel good. Even though, at the end of the day, it's a game but it's a business too. But when you're rationalizing that as a player, that sucks, I want that and I can't get it.

I think we're trying to be the best player-advocates we can by giving you something that feels good as a player, without putting you in a position that doesn't feel good. What I want is, I want people to come play Heroes of the Storm. If they spend money, great. We'll give them opportunities to spend money but we're not going to corner them, we're not going to force them. This is about, come play a fun game and have lots of cool experiences. You can unlock all the content in the game for free, but if you want to spend money? If you don't want to wait for it or make the choice of spending your shards on this skin or that skin. But this is not a system where, we don't spend our days worrying about how we'll force you to spend money. We spend our days thinking about how to make the most fun game possible.

This Heroes of the Storm interview was conducted at a media event where transportation and accommodations were provided by Blizzard.

Hello, Meet Lola