“How I Created 3 Games (of Different Genres) and Was Covered by Engadget During My Sabbatical”: Allison Liemhetcharat, Senior Staff Software Engineer at DoorDash (Video + Transcript)

March 18, 2023

Allison Liemhetcharat (Senior Staff Software Engineer at DoorDash) discusses how taking a sabbatical helps tremendously with burnout. She describes the 3 games she developed during her sabbatical, and how game development can be a lot of fun and/or it can be a lot of work.


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Sukrutha Bhadouria: Amazing. Next session, we see the number of people just increasing and climbing up <laugh> with every nanosecond. I’m not gonna waste any more time. I’m gonna jump right into introducing our next speaker, Alison. Alison is a Senior Staff Software Engineer at DoorDash and founder at Atas Fun, currently at DoorDash Labs. She’s the technical lead of simulation and evaluation and is working to improve autonomy. Alison will be speaking about how she created three different games of different genres and was covered by engagement while on her sabbatical. My goodness. Welcome, Alison. Take it away.

Allison Liemhetcharat: Thanks. Welcome to my talk today. I’m gonna talk about the games that I created during my sabbatical and kind of the, the lessons learned from that. I’d like to start my top with the key takeaways. Here are kind of the takeaways. First is that taking a sabbatical really helps tremendously with burnout. I was very, very lucky to be able to take a sabbatical, and it really helped me a lot there. The other thing is that I learned that developing games can be really, really fun but it can also be a lot of work. And lastly, community building is hard, but it’s important and ultimately very rewarding. First I’ve got to give a quick introduction to myself. So who am I? This is kind of how I usually describe myself.

Allison Liemhetcharat: I’m a proud mom. I’m a roboticist. I’m a software engineer. My education is my background is in robotics. I had a PhD from CMU there, and I’ve been doing software engineering for a number of years now. And if you look at my LinkedIn, you kind of have a look at my career path. Iit looks like a straight line. I think if you look at people’s resumes in general, this is kind of how it looks for people with careers just have one step after another. But, you know, is it really a straight line? I think you know, kind of like what Ola says, I think this, this will all make sense when I’m older.

Allison Liemhetcharat: And the way, the way I think about it is you know, in our life, whether it’s a career or like in general, there’s a lot of twists and turns. But ultimately, it’s how do we want to tell the story? How do we want to plot the line with all the data points all over the place? In the previous slide, you saw a straight line. If you’re interested, I can tell you all the twists and turns in there. But ultimately I just want to say, you know, if, if you feel that you don’t know what direction you’re going, if you feel like it has a lot of twists and turns, I think that happens to everyone. But so, essentially, why did I end up taking a sabbatical? I think one, one of the big reasons I did a sabbatical is that I hadn’t really taken a real gap from work since before my PhD.

Allison Liemhetcharat: The way it happened was that after, after I did my PhD, I started my next, and then after that I’ll take, you know, I start my next one and so on. Maybe there was like a week or two in between, but not an actual like, gap to take, to take a real break. So that was one, one of the big reasons I felt like, you know, I really wanted to kind of take a gap. The other thing was COVID-19, so I’m sure everyone was affected by COVID-19. There’s a lot of burnout because of it. This also affected myself and my family a lot. One of the kind of interesting things that happened was I flew back to Singapore. This was early 2020 before, before the vaccines and all that. And at the airport they were doing tests, and I happened to have a fever.

Allison Liemhetcharat: They put me in an ambulance. That’s kind of the picture is, you know, top right there. And then they, they drove me straight to the hospital for like, covid testing and everything. It turned out it was negative, but it was quite an adventure. I actually wrote a Medium article about, about the whole process. But, you know, COVID-19 was, was a big thing, a lot of stress, so I needed to kind of take a break from it. The other thing was that I was working for a number of years, and the company itself had just been acquired by GoPuff. So I worked at GoPuff for a number of months. We did, you know, handover and all of that, and I kind of felt that now it was a good time to take a break.

Allison Liemhetcharat: That was part of the reason why in terms of sabbatical, it was kind of a good, good spot. I wanted to have more bandwidth for my wife and my daughter. Working, you know, you, you have a little bit of time at the end of the day and our weekends, but not, not that much mental bandwidth. I really wanted to have, have more time for them. And lastly, I’ve always wanted to create games, especially with, with my daughter. She’s, she’s 10 now. And this is, I have a video here that I’m going to show. This is a game that I actually worked on when I was working at, right away. So this is like, I did this in my free time. Then it’s kind of a game a little bit inspired by like Animal Crossing: Harvest Moon and things like that where essentially you, you, you play, you play a character, you can gain relationships, you can do things like harvest minerals built things and all that.

Allison Liemhetcharat: This was kind of the scope of the game that we, we wanted to do. But it turned out that, you know, as, as is the case with a lot of like first time game developers, this is what I learned after the fact. We actually create, create games that have two large of a scope. This was Mystery Queen is kind of the game that I still want to do one day. And my daughter keeps asking me when we’re going to continue working on it. But essentially the scope of the game initially was too big. We never quite finished it, at least, at least right now. So, so then I was like, okay, I’m gonna take a sabbatical, I’m going to, going to do a whole bunch of stuff. But before I started my sabbatical, I had a bunch of thoughts in my mind, right?

Allison Liemhetcharat: One of the big thoughts was, you know, am I going to get bored? Right? What, what I was worried about is, okay, if I, if I gonna take a year, will I get two bored? Will I get easy to work? Cuz I’ve heard stories where people are like, you know, after a while they’re like, oh no, I don’t know what to do. Maybe I should just go back to work, and things like that. That was something that I wanted to figure out if that would happen to me. The other thing was, would I get too anxious about not earning income? Remember I said like, since, you know, before my PhD I’ve been working without, without a big gap. This was the first time that I’m going to have like a, a big gap and I’ll thinking, you know, is it going to cost any anxiety there?

Allison Liemhetcharat: And lastly a very important question is, if I take this sabbatical, like would I be able to find a job afterwards? I think it, it, I was lucky that I did this sabbatical before all the tech layoffs. At the time the market was still pretty hot, so this turned out to be oka, <laugh>. But, so that was how I thought my sabbatical was, and this is how it actually started. So I mentioned that there was a lot of burnout, right? After, when I started my sabbatical, I actually had a lot of sessions with my therapist and we walk through a whole bunch of work issues.

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Allison Liemhetcharat: I want to say, mental health is very, very important. Make sure you prioritize it. And on the right of this slide is a poster that I saw, I think this was taken in Singapore, and I think this is one of the best posters I’ve seen about mental health. And it’s really, really good.

Allison Liemhetcharat: When I talked through a lot of the issues with my therapist, I think one of the big one of the big pieces of advice she gave me, with regards to my sabbatical, was to actually write a letter to myself, about why I took the sabbatical. And you know, when, when she told me to do it, I was like, why bother to do this? I know why I’m doing it. But in hindsight, it was great advice because during the course of my sabbatical, I actually asked myself multiple times things, why did I take the sabbatical?

Allison Liemhetcharat: Maybe I should have just continued working things like that. And then I would read the letter to myself and like, yep, you know taking a sabbatical was the right thing to do. You know, if you ever take a sabbatical, I said, I’d highly suggest writing a letter to yourself.

Allison Liemhetcharat: The other piece of advice that she gave me was to actually have a bunch of savings, move it, check more money from savings to checking monthly to simulate a salary coming in. Even if all you do is after that, after it comes in, you can move back to savings. And when, when she told me this again, I was like, why? You know, ultimately I’m just moving money from one account to another account. And then back again, like, why, why bother? Right?

Allison Liemhetcharat: She told me that it makes a difference mentally to feel that you’re still getting some sort of income. And it does work, surprisingly. This is something that you can consider doing it if you ever want to consider doing a sabbatical. But overall, what I want to say is mental health is really, really important. So you do prioritize that. Okay? Onto the games that I created. I mentioned Mystery Queen just now where it was a game that ended up scoping a bit too large.

Allison Liemhetcharat: I wanted to create my first kind of actual game, kind of a full fledged like game. And I called it, You Are What You Eat. And the idea is that I wanted to do something simple. Something with a very, very small scope that, so I chose to have a game with a single input and is inspired by Ninja, where it was a mobile game that I played on my phone. The concept of the game is pretty straightforward. You can just hit the screen and the jump, sometimes you get a little bit of abilities with this. But the scope of the game was small enough that I could finish the game play through it, improve it, and all of that to finally close the loop of creating, creating a whole game, right?

Allison Liemhetcharat: This was my first full, actual game, and at the time, I also bought myself a Lioness. And if you, if you’re not familiar with the Lioness, it’s a smart vibrator with AI and biofeedback. When I saw the ad for this, the keywords really struck to me, right? Because it’s smart AI and biofeedback. I was like, oh my gosh, this is a robot <laugh>. I got myself one, it’s wonderful for what it does. And what’s, what’s also really nice is that it uses Bluetooth to connect to your phone. Then, I reached out to the Lioness team on LinkedIn and they were really, really helpful. They provided me with the API, so that allowed me to actually connect my team with the Lioness.

Allison Liemhetcharat: What this means is that the Lioness itself has sensors and has vibrators, so I could actually control the control the slime with the Lioness. Here’s a little video of how that works, right? Whenever the slime eats something, the Lioness itself would vibrate. There are different kinds of vibrations. And also, when you squeeze it right, you can control the slime to jump,

Allison Liemhetcharat: Right? If you hear the video a little bit, you can kind of hear the vibrations happening. There are different kinds of vibrations to indicate what’s happening in the game. I realized that from the original game to the Lioness version, you actually had to tweak it to be a little bit slower, because tapping the screen is.. you can do that a lot faster compared to compared to squeezing it. That was how I incorporated the Lioness into You Are What You Eat. That was kind of like the first first game that was was wrapped up with two different versions.

Allison Liemhetcharat: The second game that I wanted to create was called Set Simulator. This was around November 2021. GitHub does a Game Jam I think every year. It’s a month long Game Jam, where essentially at the start of the Game Jam, they gave you a team and for 2021 the team was Bucks. And you, during this one month, you’re supposed to create a game. And then I wanted to create a game with limited scope. So I created You Are What You Eat, which was a small game. And I was like, okay, now that I’ve done that, let’s make a game that’s a little bit bigger. I was like, okay, one month is a lot of def time, so that will allow me to create a a pretty decent game.

Allison Liemhetcharat: How did I pick the game? Essentially I love simulation. If you look at my, like, what I’ve done professionally, I’ve done a whole bunch of simulation and it was near Christmas. I said, okay, let’s put the two things together and create center simulator. And kind of the idea of the game is that Santa Claus is sick during COVID 19. He’s asking for help to help to distribute gifts for Christmas. And in order to do that you can hire different bucks to help you.

Allison Liemhetcharat: There are two different roles. You have preppers that wrap the presents,and movers that deliver the gifts. Each buck has its own statistics in terms of how fast it moves and its capacities. And when you actually hit sorry, when you actually hit play, you can see that the bots kind of move around, move around the world to distribute the gifts. And what’s actually interesting about that it actually uses the OSM Open Street maps for the bots to follow the roads, except the bees that fly directly there.

Allison Liemhetcharat: They have different capabilities as well, so by choosing like which kind of bots you want to hire and all that, you can actually affect your final steps, which they show. The game is kind of an optimization type game if you’re into that kind of things. And it allows you to kind of figure out what is the optimal set of bots that you should hire for, for distributionof presents on Christmas.

Allison Liemhetcharat: And this was Santa Simulator. I created that and this was kind of what my day-to-day looked like during that one month game gym, right? And if, if you look at the, the, the schedule that I have, you’ll start to think, Hmm, this looks like a little bit like a full-time job. And it is, I would say maybe a little bit worse than a full-time job because I was working on Santa Simulator like during like office hours and also at night.

Allison Liemhetcharat: This was, it turned out a little bit worse than, than I taught. My lesson lessons learned from doing Santa Simulator is that a Game Jam is a wonderful experience with a great community. There are a lot of people that are really, really nice. They’re really helpful. We shared our progress. We talked about what we did things like that. It was wonderful.

Allison Liemhetcharat: I really enjoyed the process and the community, but I’ve learned that it’s possible, it’s very, very possible to work too hard even during a sabbatical. And one of the questions I asked myself multiple times during this month was like, why, why does this feel like a full-time job or worse? And, you know, I didn’t really want to, I took a sabbatical to get a break, not to find myself in, in the full-time job, right?

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Allison Liemhetcharat: Ultimately I was proud of what I accomplished, but also very, very, very tired. Then what I needed to do was to actually take a break during my sabbatical, which is kind of funny in hindsight. It happened that my mom came to visit the States for three months cuz I was on my sabbatical and I said, you know, it’s a perfect time to come visit. We decided to go on a long road trip so you can kind of have a look at our path that we did for winter break. My daughter was off school, so we did this for long road trip. That was wonderful. I also took the time to play some video games that had on my list for for ages. I played like Horizon Zero Down Wonderful Game and a bunch of other games as well.

Allison Liemhetcharat: This break during my sabbatical was wonderful. I enjoyed it and it felt like an actual holiday at this point, right? Back to the takeaway. I’ve talked about those two and now, we’ll, we’ll talk about the, the last point about community building. I mentioned You Are What You Eat earlier, I created the game, but at that point around when I started on Santa Simulator, I finished the game, but I hadn’t actually launched it yet. And the reason why I didn’t like actually launch it was that launching a game on the mobile app stores was a little tricky. I wanted to set up LLC and, and all the kind of stuff, and there’s a lot of process involved.

Allison Liemhetcharat: In October, 2021, Liz who is the CEO of Lioness, actually reached out to her journalist contacts about the game, and I was interviewed by Cherlynn Low at Engadget in December. This was, this was a great experience. You know, she talked, she asked me about what the game was about you know, how, how do you get in touch with it? How do you play and, and things like that. If you’re interested, you can have a look at the article, it was published in January 2022.

Allison Liemhetcharat: And once she published this video, my YouTube video, the one that you saw just now, the views actually spiked up by 10,000. I’m not a like social media person, so 10,000 views to me is, is a, a ton <laugh>. Usually my videos that I post on YouTube get like, if I get a hundred views, I’m pretty happy. So 10,000 was awesome and till today it hit like 19,000. That’s pretty cool. The article itself created a whole lot of interest in the game and all that. To me, that was wonderful. And once the the game was on the app stores and people started downloading it, I had people reach out to me with like what they thought about the game and things like that. It was a wonderful experience.

Allison Liemhetcharat: And then now that I’ve done two games, I was like, okay, there’s still, there’s still time in my sabbatical. Let’s, let’s do a third game, right? One of the key things I wanted to, to do was to actually unconsciously decide not to overwork <laugh>. Santa Simulator was where I worked too hard. This time I was saying, okay, let’s do game number three but make sure that, you know, I actually spend more time with my wife and my daughter. What I did was I started following some really nice to streamers, so shout out to Treecle and Cptn_Sumi. I have their, their portraits over there. The two of them are really, really nice people and they have very, very nice communities.

Allison Liemhetcharat: Twitch was a really, really fun way for me to develop Feisty Fauna. I could do it at a leisure pace, I could get to know the community and, and so on. And both Treecle and Cptn_Sumi have been great at promoting the game.

Allison Liemhetcharat: If you’re wondering what Feisty Fauna is, it’s kind of a casual road light, like a Vampire Survivors, but like a very, very cute version. This is like the trailer that I have. If you’re interested, the game is on Steam, the demo is available for download, so you can give it a try.

Allison Liemhetcharat: And one cool fact about about the video that I just saw is that my daughter, who’s been involved in doing all the games that I showed you. She did a whole bunch of sound effects for this game as well. For example, when the Fox jumping, that’s my daughter, the Cats meowing and all, that is also my daughter. I usually I call her the creative director for the games because she’s the one that comes up with most of the cool ideas that we have in the game itself. And she’s great at finding bugs. I’ll create a version and I’ll be like, okay, you know, come play the game.

Allison Liemhetcharat: She’ll try it, and then she’ll, she’ll immediately find a bunch of bugs for me to fix. She’s really great at that, so I created Feisty for now, or at least part of it, and I wanted to be able to publicize this. And what I did initially was to use Twitter to post about the progress of Fif Fauna. The main audience was fellow game developers, which is a great community. But not quite the target audience. I heard that TikTok was a great place to do publicity. I posted a bunch of videos, not, I know, haven’t had like a great hit yet. Maybe I haven’t got the formula right or something.

Allison Liemhetcharat: Twitch has been wonderful. I talked about the streamers and the other players and a bunch of people who’ve played it have been, have been really, really very engaged. They reach out to me with the comments and let me know how they feel about the game, and all of that. And one of the things I added was to actually add Twitch integration to the game. This allows like streamers to play the game and their viewers to play along. In the next video you’ll see a whole bunch of creatures on the screen. All of them have name plates above their heads, and those are players that that joined in. This is kind of a short clip about that. This is bullet house, like Vampire Survivor, that sort of thing. This is like that. And I would not normally play these sorts of games, but this is a ridiculously cute version. It is so full of cuteness, it almost hurts how cute it is. Look, look at it. 

Allison Liemhetcharat: Alright, so, so that’s, that’s trickle off playing, playing on stream. And you know, she’s been wonderful and it, it is really fun to watch her players actually get engaged with the game as well. The other thing was to participate in steam festivals. Like I created a Halloween level for the Steam scare fest, and that was also a great way to publicize the game. There was like most of my sabbatical and in summer that’s kind of where I paused work on fight and started talking to companies to find my next role. And eventually I joined DoorDash Labs. If interested, join us, we are hiring my team and as well as other teams. Reach out if you’re interested. What I found is that, now that I’m working at a full-time job again doing, working on the game in my free time is actually really, really hard.

Allison Liemhetcharat: Progress has been slow, but, but very, very rewarding. Overall, here are the kind of the lessons learned from my sabbatical. You know, I started wondering whether I would get bought. It turns out that, you know, I realized I wouldn’t get bought. In fact, I might get even, I might even get too busy. And the next lesson is don’t get too busy <laugh>, cuz then, you know, it’s not quite a break if, if that happens. And family time is precious, kids grow up very, very quickly.

Allison Liemhetcharat: Iif you have kids and try to involve them in your interests if possible. These are pictures of my daughter over the years. We had her like play with robots from, from a young age. I have a video that I’m going to show where if you’re familiar with like machine learning and reinforcement learning, this is where you try to give rewards when something or someone does the right thing, positive reinforcement. As background, my daughter came from daycare one day and she, wherever we asked her anything about colors, she would say green. And we were like, okay, she’s learned to associate the word green with the word color with green. We need to teach her other colors. This is what we did.

Person In The Video: What color is the mango? Yellow? What color is the mango? What color is the Ingle? Yellow? What color is this? Is this green <laugh>?

Allison Liemhetcharat: Right? By doing that, my daughter learned to say yellow. It turns out that over training is also possible in human. After the exercise, she associated the word color with yellow. We had to do a whole bunch of other examples to say like, there are other colors in the world too. With that I’m ending my talk.

Allison Liemhetcharat: Thank you for listening. Here are some of my links. The first one is my personal web pitch. And the second one, Atas Fun, is where I have links to, to the different games. Thank you.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you so much. My goodness personally, your daughter is so cute. And secondly, you have so many comments, people praising your game and obviously your talk in, in, in general. Thank you for your time. This was wonderful.

Allison Liemhetcharat: Thank you.

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