Thoughts on Inventory Management Design in Video Games
I am a pack rat gamer. One of my favorite things to do in video games is to collect things. If there is random shit to pick up, you can bet your britches I will go out of my way to do so. As you can imagine, I am very sensitive to inventory management design in video games. Below, I discuss some inventory designs in games that I have played a lot of and have found to be worth remarking upon from a pack rat gamer perspective.
I will rate the ‘pack rat friendliness’ of each game based on the synergies of a few main aspects.
- Are there a lot of things to collect?
- Are those things meaningful to gameplay?
- Does the game’s inventory management help you sort/manage them effectively?
- Is the inventory the right size? Is it too small? Too large?
The pack rat friendliness of a game is in no way a reflection of how good or fun the game is. It is merely a reflection of how the pack rat part of me feels about the inventory of the game. Not every games needs to be pack rat friendly. But if one wants to design a pack rat friendly game, one needs to recognize what works and doesn’t work for pack rats in other games.
Bethesda: Skyrim and Fallout 4
Pack rat friendly: 3/5, 4/5 respectively
I’m lumping these games together because they have a very similar inventory management system.
The main thing that makes these games so satisfying to me as a pack rat is probably the same thing that annoys me. There is so MUCH that you can collect. Its awesome! But at the same time, most of the things you can collect are useless to gameplay. Unless you want to waste a lot of time, you will not pick up 90% of the items that are possible to pick up. As a packrat, this feels awful. Every time I pass over something that I can pick up, I feel like I am wasting resources by not doing so. It took me a long time to accept the fact that I was wasting more of my time than made sense when collecting useless things.
But as you probably noticed, I gave Fallout 4 a higher score than Skyrim. The great thing that Fallout 4 does that has been much more rewarding for my pack rat brain than Skyrim (or Fallout 3), is the settlement system. Now, collecting random crap can actually mean something to gameplay. There is actually thought that goes into what I collect because each item is useful in a different way. This has been my favorite aspect of Fallout 4 so far. Now, I can play the game the way that feels most natural to me and be rewarded through gameplay for doing so.
Regardless, I never have enough room for all of the crap I want to collect. Sure, realism dictates that you have limited carrying capacity. For the survivalists, I am sure that is very satisfying gameplay. Even as a packrat I appreciate being forced to make choices about what I collect and what I leave behind. But as a pack rat gamer, it still feels like too little space. In a game where there is so much stuff to collect, and it takes so much time to travel to places to sell/organize/unload it all, limiting inventory space really doesn’t seem that integral to gameplay. Sure limiting space forces the player to have a certain ‘load-out’ whenever they embark into the wilds. My load-out really didn’t ever change much from excursion to excursion. So at least to me, it feels like a needlessly small limit on the player.
Pack rat friendly: 2/5
All in all, a great example of a game where a central part of gameplay is collecting stuff, but is by and large, very un-supportive of pack rat behavior. The game is designed to encourage players to USE items that they collect rather than store them. (Which for this game I actually strongly believe is a GOOD and necessary aspect in the overall game design.)
I love Don’t Starve, but their inventory system frustrated me profusely when I first started playing. The amount of items you can carry is very small, which could work, except that there are a lot of types of resources, and the game is designed around collecting resources to build a base. Also, you can only stack items to 40 before they become a new stack, so your space is even more limited.
Add to this that chests only hold 9 stacks of resources each. Which means that to hoard and organize a meaningful amount of items, you need to create a lot of chests, which can be confusing when you are looking for something specific.
Also, exploration is exceedingly frustrating. Your inventory needs to be filled with a few basic items before you head off into the wilderness, and those basic items take up half of your inventory space. You have to be very single minded in what you collect, and can only explore small sections before you need to return to base to unload things.
Overall, the best way to have made this game better for pack rat gamers (which I would not condone for Don’t Starve, but may be relevant advice to anyone making a game similar) would have been simply to have less possible items to collect. Not so few that it becomes stale, but few enough that a stack of every item could fit in a reasonably small and managable number of chests. That way, it is not so frustrating to make decisions about what you are carrying when you go out to explore, and it is easier to organize items that you do collect.
Pack rat friendly: 4/5
Minecraft is one of my favorite games ever. Part of the reason is because of how pack rat friendly the game is.
There are a lot of resources to collect, but each has a very specific use. It is very easy to weigh the importance of having one thing in your inventory versus another based on their use, rarity, and importance to gameplay. For example, it is easy to know to pass up a block of dirt if you can pick up some iron ore instead. Dirt is everywhere, but iron is not.
One major thing that Minecraft has over a game like Skyrim, is that there is nowhere to ‘sell’ large amounts of items back to the game for any ‘currency’. So collecting things that you can’t use is completely undesirable because they have 0 value to gameplay. I never feel bad about passing up common resources because they have relatively no use other than to exist as blocks.
Minecraft also gives you a relatively large inventory. Items can be stacked up to 64, which feels reasonable. You can hold most of the basic things that you will encounter just walking around in your inventory with room to spare. You can explore for a long amount of time before you will encounter enough unique items that you want to keep to fill your inventory. All in all, very packrat friendly.
Also, organizing items in Minecraft is easy. You can create and label chests. You can even make chests in 2 different sizes depending on your organizational needs. If you are a super nerd, you can even use redstone to help you auto sort items. :O Basically, even though item management is mostly up to the player, the game gives the player enough tools that it is relatively easy to organize your items in whatever way is most efficient for you.
There are only 2 things that keep Minecraft from being a perfect pack rat game for me. One, is the lack of an ‘auto-sort’ feature like that in Terraria (discussed below). It would save a lot of time and effort and make the game much more focused on the ‘collecting’ rather than the organizing.
Two is that the inventory feels too small. For the design of the game, it feels like the perfect size, I would not change a thing. I heavily debated even putting this as a point, because I really would not want the inventory size to be changed. However, this game does not honestly feel like a 5/5 on the pack rat scale, and I think the inventory size is the reason. There have been countless times where I have been frustrated with the game for not having enough space for all of the things that I want to carry. Or because I have to constantly retrieve items that I put away into chests because I didn’t have space.
Pack rat friendliness: 3/5
I wish I could give Terraria’s inventory design a higher score. There are so many unique features in the inventory design that the pack rat in me wishes more games would adapt. The inventory seems designed specifically with pack rats in mind! But there are a couple fatal flaws that make me not enjoy hoarding in this game.
Lets start with the good things. The inventory in Terraria is huge. I don’t think I have ever had to return to base while exploring because my inventory was full. The maximum stack size for items varies, but most of the consumable items can go to 99, while ammo and blocks can go to 999. There are many unique types of chests, and you can even label them with text, so organizing items and finding them again is easy. There is even an auto-sort feature, which takes all items in your inventory and automatically stacks them into nearby chests with the same items. It is fricken awesome.
So with all these pack rat friendly features, why did I rank Terraria so low on the pack rat scale? The main thing that keeps Terraria from being pack rat friendly is the sheer number of types of items that exist in the game. I found myself overwhelmed trying to organize and keep track of all of the items collected during gameplay. I felt like I hardly had any time to actually play because even with all of the awesome and helpful organizational tools, there were just so many items that I still could not keep up.
The second more minor reason my pack rat brain did not enjoy Terraria, is that I found that most of the items I collected I never used. I am sure that most of the items CAN be useful to gameplay, but I have played for about 80 hours now and I still have no idea what 90% of the items in Terraria are for.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Pack rat friendliness: 5/5
Saving best for last. The pack rat in me has always been deeply satisfied with LoZ games, because there is a space literally akin to a trophy collection in your menu for every possible collectible item in the game. Not only do I get to keep literally everything that the game has ever given me, but it is also practically in a display case.
So I was very pleasantly surprised when I found that I still adored the Breath of the Wild inventory just as much, despite the difference in the sheer number of items available to collect.
The very obvious, but completely accurate reason that Breath of the Wild is so satisfying to me as a pack rat, is because aside from weapons and shields, there is literally no limit to how much I can carry. The game even does away with the limit on your wallet for how many rupees you can gather. You can collect as much random useless shit as you can find, and you never have to worry about how much space you have left, or how to organize it.
On the subject of the weapons and shields, I was mildly annoyed when sometimes I would have to drop weapons that I wanted to keep to pick up different ones. But I actually appreciated this because it meant that I was collecting weapons faster than I was using them. Which meant that the limit was actually keeping me from collecting weapons that I really wouldn’t ever use, and were thus useless to gameplay. If selling weapons were possible, this would have been a problem for pack rat me. But selling weapons is not possible, so superfluous weapons serve completely and utterly no purpose, and not being able to pick them up, doesn’t feel bad.
Also, having the limit on the weapons and shield slots gave me, as a pack rat, an additional ‘purpose’ in the game. I sought out korok seeds like a pig hunts truffles. I collected them until I was able to unlock every single slot. And when I did, I was able to show off my ‘collection’ in the menu. My ‘trophies’. Despite the limit, and due to the unique inventory treatment of these items, my pack rat self LOVED it.
I was at first slightly annoyed that I could not move the items around, to group them the way I wanted, but then I discovered the game’s inventory sorting feature. And I realized that this was a much better solution to my problem. The game does the sorting for me, so I don’t have to spend tedious amounts of time doing it myself.
Based on the above, these are the guidelines I have established that are important for a pack rat friendly game.
Are there a lot of things to collect?
Having a lot of different types of items to collect definitely makes a game feel more pack rat friendly. However, of these points I think it is the least important. As long as the other three points are met, a game will feel good to a pack rat regardless how how many unique types of items there are.
Are those things meaningful to gameplay?
Having items that are collectible that are not useful to gameplay feels really bad. However, it feels even worse if those items have a very small or marginal use in gameplay. Items that are worth something, but still worth less than the time it takes to reap the benefits, feel awful to the pack rat.
Does the game’s inventory management help you sort/manage them effectively?
It is not worth collecting things if they cannot be easily found and used later. Giving the player the ability to sort and store items efficiently is paramount. However, even better is having tools in the game that sort items for the player. No mater how much a player enjoys organizing things, they would still rather spend their time playing than organizing.
Is the inventory the right size? Is it too small? Too large?
For mundane items that can be found just by picking them up in the world, no amount of inventory space can be enough. Any limit on inventory feels bad. However, limits on gameplay critical items (such as weapons, potions) do not necessarily feel bad if done correctly. Inventories also seem particularly satisfying when different types of items are treated separately. It feels good for ‘gameplay critical’ items to adhere to one set of inventory rules, while ‘collectible’ items adhere to another.