Joanna Khoo: Former esports player makes games out of thin air

Posted by Bryan Terng on April 4, 2020

The senior programmer of Gameka had a brief stint as a League of Legends esports player before conjuring up video game worlds.

To celebrate women who have contributed to the growth of esports and gaming in Southeast Asia, this series of profiles aim to tell the story of five women who have made a positive impact in their respective fields.

It’s not uncommon for the video games industry to be repeatedly labelled as “male-dominated” across the board, implying that females in the gaming scene are always mistreated. But, like the concept of yin-yang, there’s both good and bad in every aspect of this great big universe. And the same goes for the gaming world - although our previous Women in Gaming articles gave a glimpse of its darker sides, it’s not all grim and glum for women with gaming professions. One such woman who has been fortunate enough to be on the lighter side of the industry is Joanna Khoo, who was briefly in the esports scene before moving on to game development.

Nothing is binary

“I haven’t experienced any blatant discrimination or anything like that, so it’s actually been okay for me so far,” said Joanna “Orangeroo” Khoo Sook Wing. It’s a breath of fresh air knowing that, because it’s a testament that women who embark on video game-related careers aren’t necessarily doomed to be mistreated. Even so, she doesn’t deny that there are women in gaming professions who face such injustice from their peers.

Related: MLBB esports player, Qiann is more than just the only female player of MPL-MY/SG Season 5.

Joanna and the women of Gameka at a game development meet-up by WiGout.

“I’m glad that the culture in my company (Gameka) has been pretty good,” the Malaysian said. “So, in a way, I’m protected from such issues.” With the local game and app development company instilling such a positive culture, it’s no wonder that Joanna was drawn to Gameka in the first place. When her interest in game development was still, well, developing, she was merely a “stalker” of Gameka on social media. “I was curious about game companies in the country and wanted to support their page by giving them a ‘like’,” she recalled, working as a senior software developer at the time. When she decided to join the company, she reached out to a friend who was coincidentally working there. After he recommended her to give it a shot, she went to check out the workplace environment. “I liked the vibe of the office and the people, which is why I decided to join.”

As a senior programmer at the Malaysian game and app development company, Joanna has two separate job scopes for her two-worded job title: the “programmer” side, which requires her coding in game features (article); and the “senior” aspect - teaching younger programmers and staying in-the-know of the latest toolkits in game coding to improve the company’s resources. Joanna was also in charge of audio design (creating sound effects), music composition and audio implementation (coding sound into the game) for the games they create, which she’s more than happy to do due to her interest in making music with friends. It’s a pretty dynamic role that Joanna has taken upon, especially when audio and programming require very different mindsets.

Related: Your guide to the ins and outs of game development.

Joanna started her side job on game audio with Combat Wombat.

“I like the logic of coding, because it’s like solving puzzles,” she explained. “Plus, you have the ability to create anything on a blank slate.” On the other hand, audio is a lot about expression and creativity for her, requiring her to think outside the box to execute it well. “You can create sound out of anything, literally.”

Developing a career or two

Believe it not, Joanna was fascinated by the science of programming as early as her primary school years, after stumbling upon a software to self-learn the craft. “I’ve always loved games since I was a kid,” she recollected, gaming since the days of Pac Man and floppy discs. A fan of tactical shooters such as Rainbow Six, the then-aspiring programmer got hooked onto League of Legends during her formative years in college, even entering the esports scene briefly as a competitive player in 2011. She proceeded to participate in various Garena tournaments and even placed top 10 in the 2011 World Cyber Games with her team.

Joanna wasn't joking when she said "you can create sound out of anything", at the Sepang International Circuit for a secret project.

“It was fun! I enjoyed the camaraderie and the dynamic of working together with my teammates,” Joanna reminisced with a smile. Back then, she and her friends were juggling their daytime jobs and nighttime scrimming with other teams from overseas to keep their passion afloat. After playing for roughly two years, “I got a little burnt out because training and working at the same time was getting too much, not to mention that tournaments were slowly tapering off.” Even though there were other esports-related roles she could’ve explored (such as a coach or an analyst), she’s happy with her role as a game developer.

Take a walk on the bright side

“Game programming is a mix of what I love, which are coding and gaming,” the Animal Crossing: New Horizons fan said. “It’s a combination of what I like, what I’m good at, and what I can make money with.” Besides that, Joanna relishes the fact that even though the local gaming industry is still young, it has a positive culture of sharing knowledge between each other without being secretive or overly-competitive. “It’s a really good mindset for the community to have, and it’s something I appreciate a lot about the industry.” And what habit does she think that future game developers should adopt to do well in the industry?

Showcasing Gameka's game, Combat Wombat, at Level Up KL 2019.

“Work hard to be good at your craft,” Joanna advised, saying that joining game development communities and meet-ups would be extremely beneficial in learning the ins and outs of game development. These include hackathons - such as Game Jams, where you and your team have to create a functioning game in two days - and club meet-ups by WiGout (for women) and the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) Malaysia. “These are good ways for you to gain exposure in making games.”

All smiles at the Unite Singapore 2019, a Unity Creators Conference.


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