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Why You Sometimes Need to Leave Your Best Ideas Behind

Intense brainstorming led us to a brilliant idea for the theme of our first video game. But as we developed that game, we also learned that even the best ideas require pruning if you want your entire project to grow and thrive.

When my friends and I sat down to plan out the theme of our video game Alkanaur, we stumbled upon an exciting, fresh idea. What if the Greek and Roman cultures never died out and stuck around until the Industrial Revolution? And what if their distinct ideologies (at least according to pop culture) caused a civil war of sorts? A civil war that would impact the gods themselves? As far as we knew, these thematic questions were unique. And the Greek and Roman influences would stand out among other tactical RPGs—our chosen genre.

It was a great idea. But ultimately we made the best decision possible for that idea—we ditched it.

Prune isn’t a sexy word. But without proper pruning, some trees and bushes will never reach their full potential. Likewise, even the best ideas may need some pruning. Every creative process involves more than one great idea, one perfect plot line, one remarkable riff, or one beautiful brushstroke. If you allow one idea to take over your entire project, it might choke out the other branches.

In some ways, the whole pruning process seems a bit unfair—the branches that do the most growing also end up getting the most chopping. However, imbalanced growth in a tree might result in a devastating collapse later in the tree’s life. Similarly, we also started to see imbalance in our project, even though we enjoyed seeing that “branch” on our tree and imagining the fruits it would bear.

As we continued to work on our indie game over the next couple years, we avoided pruning as long as we could. We loved the idea of fusing Greek and Roman culture with a steampunk aesthetic, but ultimately the task was beyond our resources as a small team. Marble pillars and metal gears don’t mix. We had early concept art and a few solid ideas, but we could also tell that a fully realized world would require a Herculean effort. A more experienced team with a legion of concept artists could likely figure out a great way to believably blend the two concepts. However, our primary focus was to make sure our art looked good, stayed consistent, and remained affordable.

Some early concept art for one of Alkanaur's main characters

But we could leave behind the art stuff and still keep the other worldbuilding concepts, right? A normal steampunk setting that still uses the Greek and Roman mythos? We tried. After all, with tons of centuries under their belt, the Greek and Roman empires would probably appear quite a bit different. Maybe they would grow tired of all those columns and chariots. While the idea of pitting Greek myths and ideology against Roman myths and ideology was a great design constraint as I molded the world of Alkanaur, that constraint became less and less helpful.

At one point I sat on a park bench, looking through my copious, unorganized notes and trying to connect each of Alkanaur’s cities to a different Greek or Roman god. Poring through my notebook, I realized that many of our best ideas, which had spawned from our initial thematic questions, would still thrive on their own in a different world without Greek and Roman gods. When I cautiously brought this up to the rest of our small team, they agreed. And so Alkanaur eventually became its own world with its own gods. We had zealously and ruthlessly pruned our initial great idea entirely out of the tree.

Or had we? You won’t find steampunk centurions in our game, and you won’t find an industrialized city wholly devoted to Hermes. But Alkanaur wouldn’t even exist as it does now without the remarkable growth it experienced from that one ambitious concept. Our tree—if you’ll pardon me for the obnoxiously extended metaphor—grew around that branch even as we (reluctantly) pruned it bit by bit. I’m sure if anyone pays close attention to our finished project, they’ll find frequent evidences of that first big idea.

Did all that pruning indicate that our initial idea wasn’t that great after all? Perhaps. But I don’t think so. To get started on our video game, we needed more than a good idea—we needed the best idea available at the time. That gave us the energy and excitement we needed to gain momentum on our project. But as the project grew, we needed to be brave enough to take care of the whole tree and not just the best-looking branch.

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