PC RPG Inventory Systems: Why are they Stuck in the 1990s?

Inventory for the RPG Dragon Age: Inquisition

In many ways, RPGs have improved exponentially since the days of Wizardry and the Dungeons and Dragons gold box series, very early RPGs with primitive sound, 2D graphics, and low resolution art. Now we have 3D graphics on glorious flat screens, voiced NPCs and protagonists, NPC schedules, day and night cycles, and more. But you know what hasn’t changed all that much?

Inventory systems.

Yes, the inventory. Why do so many modern RPGs still have such a terrible inventory system?

For example, Divinity: Original Sin 2 has been rightly heralded as an RPG gem, but this is what the game’s inventory looks like:

The inventory from RPG Divinity: Original Sin 2
Notice the scrollbar on the right. You’re only seeing part of the inventory.

Or how about Tyranny?

Inventory from the RPG Tyranny
The inventory in Tyranny. The party stash is opened on the left.

In this one, the main party inventory isn’t too bad with only two rows to fill, but there’s a party stash where hundreds of other items are sent. The party stash is opened on the left and we’re only seeing the first of two pages.

How about Skyrim?

Inventory in the RPG Skyrim
The ingredients section in the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim inventory

Before Skyrim was released, I saw an interview with Todd Howard in which he talked about the inventory interface for Skyrim, and how the developers at Bethesda designed it to behave like an iPhone because everyone loves the iPhone interface. I’ve never owned an iPhone so I can’t say much about it, but the interface didn’t work all that great in a game.

Dragon Age: Inquisition has a similar inventory (see screenshot at the top).

What’s the Problem?

I understand why an RPG’s inventory is always a headache in MMOs. The game company wants you to subscribe to get more inventory space, or they want you to buy extra slots in the game’s store. I don’t like it, but I get it.

I don’t understand why the situation hasn’t improved in many single-player RPGs. What’s the problem? Why is the inventory often a pain to use? How can we improve the typical RPG inventory system?

To me, the inventory can be a pain in two ways.

Not Enough Slots

We’ve all played games where we constantly have to go back to town to sell stuff, otherwise our inventories are overflowing. One way to avoid this would be to stop picking up everything that’s dropped, but having to examine every dropped item can break the flow in a game. If I’m racing across the countryside cutting down enemies, I don’t want to defeat one, stop, sort through the dropped items, take some, move on, defeat another one, stop, sort through the dropped items…you get the picture. That’s why most gamers hit the “take all” button. Because we want to keep playing the game, damn it.

Can’t Find Anything

Another way inventory is a pain is when there’s a ton of slots, but I can’t find anything. “Oh, I just finished several combats and now I want to see what cool stuff I picked up because I think I saw a rare purple item in there somewhere.” *opens inventory* “Hmm, I can’t find it. Where’s that item among the hundreds in here?”

Some inventories highlight new items when you open them, but if you close the inventory, they’re no longer new, even though you haven’t touched them in any way.

How to Improve the Inventory System in RPGs

I’m not a game designer, but here are my thoughts on how to improve the typical RPG inventory system.

Don’t Drop So Much Junk

There’s too much junk dropped in RPGs. Do we really need every baddie we kill to drop 17 items? Even the lowly rat sometimes drops four or five.

When every enemy drops stuff, everything becomes junk. “Oh, there’s another super-duper sword + 15. I already have 10 of those.”

One of my favourite gaming memories from way back is finding cool stuff in the Elder Scrolls: Morrowind. Early in the game, when my character was still a weakling, there was nothing more thrilling then entering a Daedric ruin, battling the enemies inside, which were always more powerful than my character at that point, and opening the chest in the ruin when I won. There was always some high-end gear in there for a character at my level, stuff that I either wouldn’t see again, or wouldn’t be dropped from normal enemies until I was much higher level.

That’s if the game didn’t crash, because sometimes I was unlucky and just as I opened the chest, blue screen. But that’s another story.

I’d love to see single-player RPGs cut down on the junk and have more unique items to find, and perhaps these unique items could also change on each playthrough, just for some variety. It would be great to find a complete set of armour that provides unique bonuses, with each piece being dropped in a different part of the world. That would be much more satisfying than picking up yet another set of chain mail + 1.

Have an Option to Convert Items to Gold

I wouldn’t want this option to take effect when items are picked up, but an option in the inventory to select items and convert them to gold would remove the “Oh, crap, I have to go back to town because my inventory is full” or “Oh, crap, I’m down in level 5 of a dungeon and my inventory is full” problem.

Now, maybe some gamers will say, “But it’s part of the immersion. You have to go back to town and hear the merchant tell you that some people’s junk are other people’s treasure again.”

Hey, if you want to do that, don’t use the convert to gold button. I play games to have fun. It’s not fun when you have to keep returning to town, or you find yourself deep in a dungeon and have to spend fifteen minutes sorting through your inventory and dropping stuff so you’ll have room for the cool items the dungeon boss will drop.

I see this as similar to travel options. Some gamers use fast travel because it’s convenient. They don’t want to spend precious gaming time travelling the same tired roads they’ve already been down multiple times. Others walk their characters everywhere. It’s all about choice.

Have Most Enemies Only Drop Gold

Why not cut to the chase? Forget about converting items to gold. Just have most enemies only drop gold. That’s what 99% of dropped items end up becoming anyway, right? Gold. It’s not as if visiting a merchant is a vital part of the RPG experience. After the first few times, it’s old.

It would also make a dropped item a nice surprise. Killing junk mobs would be interesting again, because there would be the possibility of them dropping an item.

Cut the Crafting

This one will probably be controversial, but how many gamers actually craft in a meaningful way in RPGs? I never do, and I’ve never played an RPG (and I’ve played a lot of them) where I couldn’t finish the main quest because I didn’t craft. However, I only play the Normal difficulty mode. I understand why gamers who play the hardcore modes might need to craft in some games.

It’s often crafting ingredients that clutter my inventory when they’re not stored in a separate area. Yes, I could just not pick up crafting ingredients and items, but I always worry that I’ll reach a point in the game where crafting is required to progress. If I could be promised by the game that I really, really don’t need to craft, either to finish the game or to complete a quest, I’d leave crafting items on the ground. Just have an early NPC (or a tutorial box) tell me that crafting is completely optional.

Give Me a Magic Merchant

If my character could have some type of ability or power to summon a merchant wherever I am, I’d be happy, as long as this merchant was able to buy everything I wanted to sell. One gripe about the Elder Scrolls games is that merchants often don’t have enough gold to buy your items.

I’d be fine with having to complete some convoluted quest to get this ability. Having it would take care of the, “Oh crap, I’m on level 32 of a dungeon and if I travel to a town now, I have to fight through all 32 levels again to get back here” problem. Just summon a merchant and bam, I’m done. Of course, a convert to gold button would work here too, but maybe having to earn a magic power or ability to summon a merchant would work better for gamers who would sniff at a simple button.

Many games get around the “I’m deep in a dungeon and my inventory is full” problem by letting you create some type of teleporter back to a town, and then after you’ve sold your stuff, you step through a teleporter and return right to where you are in the dungeon. Or you can leave some item behind that you can fast travel back to later. I’d rather just cut to the chase in dungeons and sell my stuff where I am.

Keep Items as New Unless I Touch Them

In some inventory systems, new items are highlighted, but only the first time I open the inventory after I’ve received them. Sometimes I’ve opened the inventory to grab something, then closed it. Then I want to go back and look at the new items, but I can’t find them because they’re no longer highlighted.

If I haven’t clicked on an item, it’s still new. Keep it that way.

Get Rid of Encumbrance

I hate games with encumbrance. Frankly, I don’t see the point of it except to make the game more tedious to play. Sure, it means you have to pick and choose what to pick up when you’re almost at your encumbrance limit. How is that fun? Games are supposed to be fun, not drudgery.

If a game is based on a rule system that has encumbrance, dump it for the game. Rules are always tweaked in other ways to make them work in a video game, so just go ahead and dump encumbrance, too.

Having encumbrance is like having too few slots for the inventory. Unless enemies don’t drop a lot of items, it doesn’t add to the fun, and the worst thing that can be said about a game is, “It isn’t fun.”

Solutions that Don’t work or Don’t Help Much

Having a Small Number of Inventory Slots

Some games have a small number of inventory slots, so having to sort through tons of items isn’t a problem. But it doesn’t work because the enemies still drop tons of items. So sure, you don’t have trouble finding anything in your inventory, but you have to spend too much time selling items and deciding which items to drop when you’re running out of inventory space.

This solution only works if you also drastically reduce the number of items that enemies drop, to the point that most won’t drop anything, or only drop gold. But games with small inventories never do this.

Ability to Sort, Arrange, etc.

Some inventory systems already have this, and while it helps a little, it doesn’t help a lot. If the inventory is cluttered, it won’t help find items (unless there’s a sort/filter option for them, including for new items, but only if new is new until an item is touched). It also doesn’t solve the “my inventory fills up every five minutes” problem.

Storing Inventory Items in Separate Areas

It’s common to see a tabbed inventory, where armour is on one tab, weapons on another, crafting ingredients on another, etc. This helps in cutting down on where to look when you need something, but once you’re on a tab, you’re back to a cluttered “I can’t find anything” inventory.

Party Stashes

Some games have party stashes (a separate area in the inventory that’s shared among characters in a party), or they have some type of storage area back at a home base, usually in the form of a huge chest. I hate the latter. I end up storing stuff there and forgetting about it. I can remember maybe one time when I actually took something out of my home base storage because I needed it. As for party stashes, they always have the same problems as the base inventory. Too cluttered, and difficult to find what you need.

Conclusion

I’m not a game designer. I’m a gamer who finds that the inventory system often detracts from an otherwise enjoyable RPG experience. In this article, I’ve thought out loud about some possible ways to alleviate the two most common problems with inventory systems: not being able to find anything, and running out of inventory space.

Do you have any ideas about how to improve the inventory systems in RPGs? Let me know in the comments.

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