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Heavy Shit: Your Inventory System Sucks

June 10, 2010

Yes, you.  Even if you’ve never made a game before, you totally thought about it that one time.  And it would have had an inventory system.  And that system?  It would have sucked.

That felt good.  And now that I’m done making absurd generalizations, maybe I should explain to you patient readers what I’m talking about:  I’m talking about realism.  And tradition.  I’m talking about collective blindness to fact; a mass delusion that plagues nearly the entire game industry, trading a chance at unfettered enjoyment for slavish obedience to an ancient custom.

I’m talking about inventory systems, and I reserve the right to be as melodramatic as I please.

Realism is generally a good thing.  As I discussed in my last post, even games that have you doing something utterly implausible (such as saving the galaxy from giant robo-aliens from another dimension) can benefit from appearing realistic.  And, of course, it would be highly unrealistic to let players lug around several hundred tons of world-saving paraphernalia.  So no matter how many cool, useful, or downright essential items your game has, realism demands that you limit how much the player can carry.  Besides, that’s how games have always done it.

There’s a maxim in game design that is about to prove abundantly useful.  It goes something like this: “Yes, but is it fun?”

The phrase “you are over-encumbered” has been burned into my memory by Bethesda (hence the above image), so I’ll take a look at their system first.  Here’s how it would generally work in Oblivion: I would creep through a series of suspiciously identical caverns, looting corpses and stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down, and see nary a single consequence of my packrat lifestyle.  Then at some point—typically at the most inopportune moment—I would grab one item too many and be suddenly rooted to the ground by forces unseen.

YOU ARE OVER-ENCUMBERED.

God freaking dammit.

“Gosh,” I grumbled on one memorable occasion as I opened up my inventory, “it’s a good thing they included a weight limit here, otherwise it might ruin the immersion.”  Meanwhile, six or seven murderous baddies stood frozen around me (the game pauses) as I flipped through various menus to see what I could afford to drop.

Lessee…four full suits of armor for various occasions, several million dollars in assorted jewelry, a dozen or so Ultimate Artifacts of Arcane Power, the entire contents of a well-stocked apothecary, and enough weapons to invade Switzerland.

Is what I’m carrying around.  On my back.

Ah, but if I drop those gauntlets I picked up a while back (net weight: 2 lbs), then I can move freely again!  Man, Oblivion has got this whole realism thing down to a science.

Yes, but is it fun?

Oblivion (and other Bethesda games) limits what you can carry based on weight, but there are a number of other ways to do it.  Take the original Mass Effect, which draws no distinction between heavy or light items, but simply keeps a count of how many things you’re carrying around.  Mass Effect is actually an interesting beast because of the way it shamelessly enables the player’s packrat tendencies: Every enemy you kill, every discovery you make, and every container you open just automatically dumps its entire contents into your inventory.  The next time you want to access said inventory, it presents you with a list of the new items and asks which ones you want to keep (and yes, there is a “take all” button).

Hey, that actually kind of works.  You have control over the stuff you carry around with you, but the game doesn’t constantly interrupt you with tedious clerical stuff; it just lets you have fun.  Until…

“Great muppety Odin, he’s having too much fun!  Activate the mandatory item-drop screen!”

Are you kidding me?  Does the great Commander Shepard suffer from the same Spontaneous Immobilization Syndrome that all my Oblivion characters have?  Or would it overtax my poor CPU to have to keep track of a hundred fifty-one items at a time?  No, that’s not even possible: Computers operate in base 2, so a list of that size will have already set aside enough memory for at least 256 spaces.  Besides, this is the 21st century; 256 items wouldn’t tax a damn alarm clock, let alone a computer capable of running Mass Effect.  It’s painfully obvious that Bioware threw in a completely arbitrary item limit, because that’s just how inventories are supposed to work.

Say it with me now: Yes, but is it fun?

What’s interesting is that, four years earlier, Bioware made an infinite inventory for KotOR.  Can somebody please tell me what is so wrong about that?  The only problem I can see is that it might get difficult to find newer or more useful items in all the clutter; this can be easily remedied by having any first-year programming student implement a basic sorting algorithm.  KotOR certainly never gave me any trouble, so I know it’s possible.

Mass Effect even had this system polished to a mirror shine (on the PC version, natch).  Items were grouped by very specific categories; if you wanted to equip a shotgun, you were given a list of only the shotguns you were carrying.  If you wanted to swap out an armor upgrade, you got a list of armor upgrades, etc.  And all of these lists were sorted in descending order of power—not only did you never have more than a dozen or so items to sift through, but you could safely ignore all but the ones very near the top.  If Bioware hadn’t decided to impose a 150-item cap, the whole system would run perfectly; players would be able to sell or scrap items only when they wanted to, rather than when they were forced to.

The third type of limiting inventory—grid-style, as demonstrated to the right—used to be really popular around the time everybody was playing Diablo II.  Then it went into remission for a while as developers started experimenting with other forms of stupidity, but looks to be making a comeback for Diablo III.  The idea here is that it’s even more realistic because you get to spend hours trying to cram everything you need in the given space.  It’s just like going on a camping trip, except with battleaxes!

Yes. But. Is. It. Fun.

Now, I can’t speak for Diablo III’s upcoming tweaks, but Bethesda and Bioware have been good sports about improving their respective designs.  Sort of.

Bioware released two games recently: Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2.  ME2 had, um, no inventory system at all.  That’s an improvement, I guess?  Dragon Age kept the item limit, but gave you the option to spend increasingly huge sums of money on “backpacks” that increased inventory space by ten items each.  This is money that could otherwise be spent on cool stuff, like new magic spells, or abilities, or legendary battleaxes that course with the mystically harnessed power of untold generations of mighty warriors.  But instead you spend it on backpacks.  Just saying.

Fallout 3 takes a surprisingly similar approach.  With each level up, the player can choose a “perk” that gives some kind of permanent bonus to their character.  One of these, called “strong back,” lets you carry an additional fifty pounds of stuff before SIS sets in, Oblivion-style.  That’s right: In their infinite benevolence, Bethesda decided to let you spend a valuable and hard-earned character upgrade to help you overcome the arbitrary stumbling block that they created in the first place.  This is especially important because in Fallout 3 you only ever get 20 levels—after that point, you will never be able to get another perk on that character.  And the perks you’d be giving up?  They’re the ones that are actually fun, giving you stuff like unique dialog options, new combat skills, or the ability to devour human flesh.

Nope!  Gotta have that strong back.  There’s a saying here, but I think you already know what it is.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. lauramichet permalink
    June 10, 2010 11:02 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree. Oblivion, as far as I play it, exists so that I may reap or steal every goddamn bit of moveable property in the game. In games like Oblivion, Torchlight, and so on, where your rate of item acquisition is ENORMOUS, limiting inventory is like asking the player to choose which of their children to kill. I don’t mind if games don’t mimic real life when it comes to things like this– I can accept infinite inventories, a lot of the time, as a property of the game world’s magic. If the point of the game is that the world is full of things to steal– then I’m going to want to go on a brilliant and triumphant thievery spree.

    Now and again I can totally accept limited inventories, though, particularly if the game is deliberately going for realism. I can accept it, for example, in Mount and Blade. But not in Oblivion.

    • June 11, 2010 11:07 am

      I think you’ve put your finger on it perfectly. Perhaps some new terminology is in order, in light of your discovery. Inventory systems shall now be classified as:

      Kleptomaniac: For the sticky-fingered adventurer who can’t be tied down, we have significantly expanded the standard inventory size to fit your specific needs. Is infinite big enough for you? (Seen in: KotOR)

      Tactical: Careful planning and strict limitations are as much a part of the game as anything else. Choose your equipment wisely! (Seen in: Mount & Blade)

      Fun Size: Ever read Sophie’s Choice? Well, get used to that feeling. Just like the candy bar, there is nothing fun about this size. (Seen in: Diablo I through XVIII)

  2. June 11, 2010 9:27 am

    This is a good point, but maybe I could Devil’s Advocate out one more level: is an inventory fun?

    When you have just a handful of items, it’s nice to see what keys/power/trinkets you have in your stash. Once that starts increasing, I get bored. Although, as Laura points out, it is more acceptable in Mount & Blade due to its realism. However, it doesn’t actually make it fun – my items are all over the place and the game is barely helping with organising all this stuff [this is the kind of thing computers were made for, For Heaven’s Sakes].

    I wonder if sprawling inventories will become one of those archaic concepts we’ll laugh about in the past, like finite lives with no concept of checkpoint/save or an X-Com turn based strategy game. Collecting virtual items can be fun – but managing them?

    And now you’ve give me an idea for a blog post, Veret. Thanks!

    (Veret: Is this veret as in ferret or veret as in beret? Keeps me up at night.)

    • June 11, 2010 10:57 am

      Beret. Sleep well, friend.

      I actually quite enjoy fiddling with items. Not the selling/scrapping/sorting/begging for more space, but the degree of customization that you can only get from having a whole bunch of items at your disposal. Mass Effect is, once again, a useful example: All the upgrade slots and powerups make for an intriguing range of tactical options (try putting two scram rails and an explosive rounds upgrade on a shotgun, if you doubt me). The sequel stripped all that away in favor of a sleeker interface, but I would have preferred it if they had just removed the item limit and kept everything else. Maybe that’s just a degree of patience you only see in ubermensch PC gamers.

      I also want to make a tangential point here that I couldn’t work into the main post. Fallout 3 actually does give you the option to progress past level 20 and catch up on some of the perks you missed…if you buy the DLC. This is extremely cynical of me, but the inventory in that game is starting to look less like a poor design decision and more like an outright gouging.

      • June 11, 2010 11:38 am

        It’s getting harder and harder to have a conversation with anyone these days without someone dropping in Mass Effect. You’re all trying to make it play, it aren’t you? I only just bought Morrowind and Oblivion yesterday. What am I to do???

        I must admit I hadn’t thought too much about inventory as a game-design problem, but you are on the money regarding the constant bartering of items between your inventory and the environment can be a fun-sucking PITA.

        STALKER had a fair bit of inventory pornography going on, too.

      • June 11, 2010 7:14 pm

        Okay here’s the blog post you made me write: http://www.electrondance.com/?p=155

  3. June 19, 2010 9:19 am

    I would say that inventories I have enjoyed the most (if it is possible for a man to love an inventory) are those that have specific slots for specific pickups to somewhat simulate space. Contrast this to something like Resident Evil 4 where you spent ages locked in the worlds most frustrating game of tetris, it seems only appropriate to have spaces for things. A soldier would only have 4 grenade holder type-things, a couple of shoulders to sling guns over etc. I think games are ignoring the contexts and just creating these tardis-like inventories in the character’s trousers for no good reason. Sure it’s nice to steal things in Oblivion, but would you rather blunder around an inventory for 15 minutes, or have a seperate bag for jewels? I think it would make players think more about their equipment insteadof being trapped in this hoarding cycle. I don’t know, I’ll give it some thought.

  4. US92 permalink
    December 31, 2010 12:38 am

    Hey veret, you should make a blog about the usefulness of iron sights in first person shooters.

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