Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Inventory management

Richard Bartle and Scott Jennings have very different opinions about the quality of Stranglethorn Vale, whether it is one of the best or one of worst zones in World of Warcraft. I'm trying to find a good expression like "discussing the stable door after the horse has bolted", to describe a discussion which is good, but somewhat late, considering the median player level nowadays. Anyway, I decided to leave the two to it, and only pick up one tiny bit from the discussion: The quest Tigole himself admits having created and being the "worst quest in the game", Green Pages of Stranglethorn.

The problem with that quest is that it takes up a lot of inventory slots, and that back in a time where people were running around with 12-slot bags. Basically an inventory slot has a value, which is the opportunity cost of not being able to pick up some other loot, and the value of the sum of inventory slots used by that quest was higher than the value of the quest reward.

But if we take a step backwards, and look at the World of Warcraft inventory situation from a wider angle, we notice that Stranglethorn pages are just one symptom of a bigger problem: The WoW inventory system is slot based. You are limited by how many *stacks* of items you can carry, not by anything more logical, like size or weight. A Stranglethorn page takes up exactly the same inventory page as a plate mail chest piece of loot. A stack of metal bars or ore takes up as much inventory as a stack of herbs. But that is just one of several possible inventory systems used in various RPGs, and none of them are really perfect. There are more realistic weight-based systems, but those often don't use slots at all, and end up with your bags being a jumble of overlapping icons in which finding anything is a challenge. Then there are systems with a grid, which are basically limited by size, with a potion or page just taking 1x1 spaces on the grid, and the plate armor 2x3 spaces. Those often end up with you playing a Tetris-like subgame of sorting items in your inventory to fill up the grip with no holes. The best inventory systems are usually found in various space games. Every item has a weight (or a size, or both), and as long as you are under the total weight limit, you can pick up whatever you want. That enables the game to give you things like pages with zero weight and no inventory problems. Another extreme is games like Free Realms where your inventory is bottomless, and there are no restrictions whatsoever to how much stuff you can carry around. Which makes sense when the game is trying to make money by selling you stuff.

A weight-based inventory system would also allow a travel system which depends on the weight you are carrying. You could make transports like teleports and flying mounts have a weight limit, so adventurers with just whatever gear and consumables they'd need for adventuring would be able to travel fast. But transporting large amounts of trade goods, like metal bars, would have to be done in a slower way. Once you have that, you can have local resources and local auction houses, with an opportunity to make money by transporting goods from A to B. Such systems are pretty common in space ship games like EVE Online, or games based on wooden ships and oceans, but extremely rare in fantasy MMORPGs.

I'm not suggesting World of Warcraft to change its inventory system, it is way too late for that. But I've noticed an annoying tendency of newer games to simply copy various sub-systems of World of Warcraft without thinking about the consequences. Even something seemingly as simple as an inventory system, and whether players are limited by number of items, weight of items, size of items, or a combination thereof, can make a big difference to how a game ultimately plays out. Do you want to limit what the players can carry? And if yes, why, and by what criteria? Is your inventory system just a clever ploy to get people to go back to the nearest city after some time of adventuring, to sell loot? Or does it enable other modes of gameplay, like a career as a trader?
I never felt that inventory management made a game more fun. We ditched it in D&D quite quickly because working out encumbrance is tedious.

I think limiting people by volume is as good as anything (if you go by weight then you do have to wonder if some races should be stronger than others), but a page of a book really shouldn't take up a full slot.

I like the quest item holders that games like WAR have.
I think the concept of bags and inventory space will eventually die out. The first thing I do when I create a new WoW alt is stack up on some more bags - having such a small inventory space when you start is highly frustrating. Then, once you've got a bunch of decent bags, you hardly ever consider it again.

I think we'll see more systems like WAR in which you have no bags at all and quest items are stored in a different slot (or not stored at all).

A weight system would also just add unnecessary complications and penalize classes like casters that have lower strength.
FFXI does it pretty well but with a horrible caveat. You have a category of key items for non-tradable items for quests. Some just take normal slots, mostly because they require trading to an npc. You have one mog bag that can be expanded pretty high, to 80 slots, and a satchel that you get if you buy a security token.

You also have house storage that you can put non-critical items in to retrieve from your home nation and that can be expanded. You also can rent a mog locker that can be accessed in many places. Also, they have npcs that can store sets of armor you may not need.

The only problem ffxi has is that it uses a lot more "slots" because jobs have to macro gear in. Not sure how WOW does it, but when we auto attack in ffxi, we use one set of gear to boost dot, then when we use our weaponskill we use a macro to equip a set of entirely new armor to boost the weaponskill damage. A lot of the dot stats, like haste, are worthless in a weaponskill sense.

At the higher end, many jobs not only have macro sets for various abilities, they keep extra gear for fine tuning based on differences in mobs, or whether or not you have support or not. A thief in FFXI may have a TP set that focuses on attack, haste, and accuracy, a sneak/trick attack set that boosts backstab damage, a ranged accuracy set to help land status bolts, and maybe also some weaponskill gear. It's not uncommon for people playing multiple jobs to fill up their entire inventory with gear like that, or to blink into completely different armor sets when they do certain abilities.

That's the irony, FFXI's inventory set actually works well by itself, but the macro design cripples it.
A game I used to play used a weight based inventory system, and it worked ok, items you had equipped also counted towards the maximum, which helped balance the "warriors are stronger than mages" thing....warriors used plate armour and were therefore automatically carrying heavier weights around

There was also effects like if you were carrying a lot, you moved a bit slower, and your dodge bonus was lower, so took more hits
You had to balance what you needed to carry with how far you wanted to go and how you wanted your defensive stats to was a bit of a minigame in itself
Any game who uses a grid system and is worth its salt adds an "auto sort" function to prevent players from having to play tetris.

A grid based system does feel more realistic to me then wows system. So does a weight based system. Both systems have the side effect that you rather take small items with a lot of value then big items.

I just finished playing the Dungeon Siege expansion (couldn't resist to pick up the game for €2) and one of the things I found frustrating was the inventory system. Having 7 characters each with their bags + a backpack. It's a horror to try and clean that, a considerable part of my gametime went to cleaning up my inventory. And when you were done cleaning your bags you had to move all the items from your backpacks to your bags and start selling again. Meh!
The least fun part of travel is the packing. And current inventories are so unrealistic that anything weight or volume based is destined to irritate.

I will echo the other posts though and say that I think WoW would win a lot of points if they just moved quest items off the bag like in WAR.
Believe me, no AAA game design ever just copies a system without thinking about it. They may copy because it's pre-designed, because it fits into the world, or more commonly because the game's customers are used to it.
That is a pretty lame excuse. "All our potential customers are used to WoW, so lets just make a WoW clone" does not sound a viable business plan to me.
Don't forget that if you do an inventory like EvE, it will have impact on database-actions, because you can have unlimited supply of crap. (it takes sometime more than a coupel of seconds to show up your inventory which consists of more than 1000 items)
The biggest advantage of a fixed inventory is you know what the query-impact is on the server as a whole.

But I agree, there can be a middle way of EVE/Warhammer and such.

And on that note, it IS a viable business-plan to copy-cat certain stuff from a "big" game, if you do it differently then you simply have to know ergonomics and proper ui-design. That is where most game-developers are simply lacking.
Blizzard is simply known to have a good ui-design-team.
Yep, WAR's special inventory for quest items is a great addition to the traditional slotted bags approach.

I like the slotted bags because they are simple. Having to deal with weight would be a pain.

One improvement in a game like WoW might be the elimination of the gray items that are not used for anything. Why get those as a drop when you are going to sell it anyway? Eliminate that step and just give the cash equivalent. Then you are left with mobs that drop money or money and something useful, like a crafting component or a magic item.

The problem I ran into with Lich King is that I'd get all kinds of class items as quest rewards while leveling, and it was hard to vendor them because they each did something a bit different -- here's a dagger for my rogue with the same DPS as three other quest reward daggers, but one is high on expertise and attack power, one is high on crit and haste, etc. I ended up squirreling a lot of them away -- too much decision making for me.
I thought of one other reason for limited inventory in an item-rich game like WoW -- it forces players to sell items.

I tend to be a packrat. I think, 'Maybe I will take up jewelcrafting someday so I'd better save these ores.'

Having limited bank slots and bags means I have to make choices and get rid of some stuff. Most of the time if I saved it in the first place, it's a crafting component, so then I put it up at the auction house.

So limiting inventory means a more active player-economy, I'm guessing. That's a good thing.
I recall that when I first started playing WoW and couldn't afford bags (other than the small ones that randomly dropped) that inventory management was a very frustrating part of the game.

Since then I've leveled a number of characters to 70 and 80 and now every alt I roll is stacked up on the biggest bags I can afford before they even start questing. That way I don't have to worry with space and can continue to use an inventory scheme that I've become familiar with.

I do wish that WoW would implement some feature that lets you browse your bank contents without having to visit a city; you would still have to go to the bank to withdraw anything. A sort or search feature would also be a boon since the number of slots one can obtain with the largest bags is more than an average person can remember at one time.

Considering the number of bag/inventory addons that have been developed and used over the years, you would think that Blizz would latch on to the a key feature that players want. Of course, it did take them years to develop the Keyring, but now I have to remember that keys dropped as part of a quest also end up there...annoying to say the least.

In closing I would like to say that I've never been a fan of the tetris/grid inventory system. Event with an auto-sort feature it's still silly and burdensome to deal with. Eve is okay, but requires too much micro management for every Kg of space I want.
I always liked Ultima Online's inventory system. It was entirely weight based. You could carry 125 stones, and the more over that limit you were, the faster your stamina dropped to the point where you were immobilized. You could drink stamina potions or wait on it to regenerate and carry more, but it was tedious. You couldn't even cast a recall spell if you were exceptionally overweight with items.

It worked well because UO was a PvP game at heart. A player had to really think about what was being carried at any given time in regard to value, utility, and weight. One would not want to kill another player, loot their body after a fight, only to become overweight when they or their friends retaliated.

Of course, I played Ultima Online before it became a loot-based game (which I will always resent because it was so perfect with its skills-based nature prior to that), when there was an upper-limit to the amount of magic an item could be bestowed with, and if you brought it into combat, there was a chance you could have it stolen or looted if you died.
I'm racking my brain and unfortunately failing to come up with the title of the game I played not too long ago (it wasn't WAR) where Quest Items didn't take up any space in your bag, it was just noted in your Log that you'd collected X of Y Giblets, etc. When I realized this was what the game was doing I immediately thought "Why didn't WoW do this?"

Especially when you think of quests like Tales of STV which seem to serve no purpose other than to fill up your packs while driving you mad looking for the last few elusive pages, that's if you don't just buy them outright off the AH. In fact a smart player will start buying their STV pages early on, for cheap, rather than pay a premium when they now only need page 26, and there's only one on the AH and the gouging SOB of a Seller is asking 10 gold for it because he knows he'll eventually get it. And he's right, dammit, because you want to complete that quest while it still gives you a decent amount of XP.

Actually if you already have all the pages by the time you get the STV quest you can gain almost a full level just from turning them all in. 10g for almost a full level of XP? It's not so bad when you think about it like that ;)
It's funny that when you talk about a weight-based open bag system like in UO/DF, you call it a 'challenge' in a negative way. Why is removing challenge (or options) always a good thing?

WoW trades the initial 'challenge' of organizing a bag and replaces it with the ultimate limitation of bag space, which hurts certain choices (mostly crafters) far more than others. In an MMO, where we assume the players won't be jumping in/out every month, is it really good design to trade late-game benefit for upfront style?
A big reason is database management and server limitations, not game design, Tobold.

If you have, say, 5k players on a server, and say 75 slots for items, you're dealing with a rather large database (or sets of databases) that already includes everything else important about a player.

If they could give you nearly infinite bag space and not have the servers come to a grinding halt, I could see it being considered, because inventory management isn't fun.
The "challenge" I'm talking about is often in the implementation, where your virtual bags in what I admit is a completely realistic fashion become totally chaotic, and things aren't in the corner you sorted them into before you closed the bag. Icon of Large Item A completely covering up icon of Small Item B you are looking for is a challenge in a negative way.
Ah ok, well in that case it's a bug rather than the design. DarkFall usually keeps track of the location of an item in a bag, but if you crash while playing, sometimes you come back to your main bag being mixed up. I don't blame the inventory design though, I accept that it's a bug (granted one that would be far less annoying in a slot based system)

As all things in an MMO though, the item management system is tied to everything else. Could DF have ten different graphics for the same sword (stats wise) with a slot-based inventory system?
A limit gives greater perceived value to what we have. However it should not be so low that we cannot carry/store what we want. I might be biased as a packrat hybrid.

A weight system would be nice only with some automatic inventory sorting, or easily available optional mods like in WoW. To avoid penalizing casters it could be based on strength or intellect. Rogues are screwed. :P
Anyone remember Ultima VIII ? Now that was chaotic inventory management, yet fairly nice in being closer to reality.
As others have mentioned, the solution to this is pretty simple in WOW. Make a "quest items" bag that works like the keyring that's already in game.

After foolishly trying to do them the first few times, I learned that Green Hills and other similar quests should be skipped, because they're more annoying than they are fun. I suspect most people do the same, so Blizzard effectively created a quest that nobody does, which does seem rather pointless.
How about a realistic approach? If you slay a giant and get his chest piece, you have to drag the thing around on a sled or leave it behind. If your character can't carry it with his free hand, hook it on a belt, or stuff it into his knapsack you can't carry it. You know, like in life.

We could all waddle around wearing dozens of bags but not be able to get to our swords because we are ompletely encumbered by bags and satchels.

yeah, I know, too hardcore.

It would be an interresting thing to do though, if you made item management closer to what we do in real life. If you don't have a vehicle, a bag to drag along, or a free hand, then you can't take it with you. If you DO take it with you, it impedes your ability to do things like fight, unless you fancy swinging that breast plate around with your spare hand and using it as a club, or you ditch the dead weight and hope you survive to pick it up again :)
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