My first big idea

It hit me while I was walking down the street in a chic Tokyo suburb, an honest-to-God bolt from the blue mindfreak of a satori. It hit me so hard I had to stop, find a place to sit, and think for a while. I had a good life in Japan – an amazing group of friends, a job with a lot of freedom, a fantastic city and country to explore, no real responsibility. But this mindworm of an idea would be the key reason for my leaving Japan, my job, my plans, and taking a left turn in life.

So, to set the stage, I was living the good (if somewhat modest) life in Tokyo, and decided that after three years on the same old laptop (the once blazingly fast PowerBook 170), it was finally time to get myself a new computer. So I went to Nerd Heaven Akihabara and bought a brand new Power Mac 9500/120, a massive, hernia-inducing 25″ CRT, a couple of games, and went home to geek out over the weekend.

One of the games I happened to pick up was Dark Forces, a first-person shooter by LucasArts. Oh. My. God. Those of you who grew up in the age of 3D hardware acceleration can’t begin to understand what it was like to go from 2D black and white to color 3D, even at 20-30 frames per second.

A friend and I switched back and forth, spending – I don’t know – twenty hours? playing through it. I alternated between complete nausea from the vertigo, and an inability to stop playing (the junk food we were eating probably didn’t help). While my friend played, I lay on the tatami mats in my apartment, eyes closed, unable to stop my brain from replaying the game’s scenes in my head. I’m serious about this – I couldn’t stop myself from visualizing the shifting corridors, the stormtroopers and other baddies. For hours. If you’ve ever played Tetris1, you know a little of what I’m talking about (just try to stop your mind from seeing Tetris blocks everywhere, and attempting to fit them together). But nothing had prepared me for the (at the time) extraordinary graphics, and my brain’s desperate attempts to make sense of what it had seen by replaying it, over and over.

This was an incredibly powerful, visceral experience. My last computer had had a 512×342 pixel black-and-white screen – I had a color 17″ monitor at work, but I’d never seen anything like this, and I was blown away. I just couldn’t get those images out of my head.

Later, as I was walking down a street in Hirō, thinking about that incredible game and its visual impact, I suddenly remembered a detail from a couple years back. A close friend of the family had been diagnosed with cancer, and his doctors had told him that he should visualize his immune cells slipping through his body and attacking the cancer cells. That he should visualize them as being strong, and the cancer cells as being weak. That there were studies that suggested – who knows why or how? – that people who did this had better long-term outcomes.


What if someone built a 3D immune system game that was so detailed, so realistic, so visually immersive, so much fun that people wouldn’t be able to stop playing, and wouldn’t be able to stop visualizing even when they did? What if it gave people a sense of power over their cancer, a sense that they could beat it? What if it were networked, and connected them with a community? What if it actually had a clinically significant effect?

You’re goddamn right I stopped, sat down, and thought for a while.

I eventually came back to the US, read a whole lot of textbooks on 3D graphics, immunology, anatomy, hematology, etc., and set to work on a design document. I filled pages with ideas on unit types, worked out tesselations of tubes and joints with different levels of detail (so that I could save polygons on tube segments that were farther away), built some tools to construct Bezier curve-based levels, and wrote my own 3D engine.

I called it Oncocide.

white_blood_cellMy original concept was of a Descent-style six degrees-of-freedom shooter (with the player as different immune cells – none of that Fantastic Voyage nonsense), but given the nauseating vertigo Descent created (and the target audience of cancer patients), ultimately decided that that was the wrong approach. The more I learned, the more I thought it had in common with a real-time strategy game – there were lots of different units, they had to work together, etc. – there was even a period where I considered making a party-based MMO (though that was probably because I got really into MMOs).

In the end, it became clear that it was too big a project for one person. It was going to need a huge art and design staff, other coders, and certainly wasn’t something that I, with my rapidly depleting bank account (I had since left my job), and little idea of what I was doing, could bootstrap on my own. I needed to learn my craft. I needed contacts. I needed to understand how the system worked.

And so, I went to work in the video game industry. I did learn my craft, published a number of games, made contacts, and learned how the system worked. I always kept Oncocide in the back of my mind, but the game industry has a way of chewing people up, and in the end I couldn’t see a path through to funding as an indie. So, I took another turn, and followed a different path.

A couple of months ago, one of my friends sent along a New York Times article on a neuroscience lab using addictive games to try to improve cognitive function. It seems like such an important phenomenon – in a way, the biggest surprise is that it took so long for people to start playing with it like this. I’m glad they have. I still think of Oncocide from time to time, still wonder if there might be a chance to make a run at it one day – but it’s way past time to get the idea out there, instead of continuing to hold on to it.

It’s a truism that ideas are cheap, and that execution is what matters. I agree, and though perhaps this will serve as nothing more than a moderately interesting anecdote from my past, I can’t help but hope that someone – you, perhaps – will see what I saw, and decide to see what you can do.

1 If you’ve never played Tetris, then I don’t even know what to say to you.

3 thoughts on “My first big idea

  1. This reminds me of the kind of games that Jane McGonigal has started writing.

    Separately, I’ve always found it to be a pity that 6dof games didn’t succeed in the market.

    • Thank you! I’m excited to read her book, though I must admit to a bit of trepidation – that I might discover, years later, that there was a group working on similar things in parallel, with whom I might have had a natural affinity. Still, never too late :)

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