Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
October 31, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 31, 2014
PR Newswire
View All
View All     Submit Event

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

by Jimmy Baird on 02/12/10 04:11:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Designing an inventory system is a lose lose situation. There is no contemporary way, measure or thought to do it exceptionally well. As soon as someone stumbles upon a clue. Someone releases a game which knocks us back a few paces due to an inferior inventory. I'm mostly writing this for my own thought process. I chose here as a place I could potentially get some feedback. 

Let's start with an idea. Ergonomically the simpler something is the better function it will perform.

Let's look at adventure games, as this is a good reference point to where ergonomics did more harm than good. Maniac Mansion and say Space Quest IV. Both wonderful games of my youth. Half the puzzle was figuring out the natural game progression half the puzzle was figuring out the grammar.

SQIV did it via pictorial verbs while Maniac Mansion did it via written verbs. Both had pretty much the same interface. Then some genius figured out that the verbs were redundant and all you need is one verb. The Use button. However, we all know the best word to use universally in place of any other verb is fuck. Which is exactly what happened to adventure games, they got fucked.

In a similar turn inventory can be made redundant by ergonomics. Just by using the use key. Collect an item, then whenever you have to use it on the thing you have to use it on. Just press the use key. And everything will work out.

But this is rather worthless if you are providing puzzles for a player. As there is no active thought process to put the square block in the square hole. No instead, it's forget just press the Use key on the square hole and hope for the best. Kind of like sticking a fork in a socket, really.

My grief with coming to a conclusion is that I have realised I need some kind of inventory system. And I want to make it with as little UI as possible, while having the most ergonomic experience. Without compromising the idea that I would like the players to think about which items to use on a puzzle.

I look at old and modern examples and they are all near worthless. Inventory Grids, Button scrolling, Personal Stash in a static location, not pausing the game to look at your inventory (Hi Capcom!). And then from inventory grids we need descriptions and stories about items, and perhaps another level of interactivity like inspecting and merging with other items. It basically becomes a completely separate beast of it's own that sits slightly out of the game world.

It feels like every time you decide on something you burn a bridge behind you in this design. Either take another step forward, or start all over again.

Hence why inventory is dull. But I have thought about what I want. And it is now solved. Kthx.

Related Jobs

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — Troy, New York, United States

Assistant Professor in Music and Media
The College of New Jersey
The College of New Jersey — Ewing, New Jersey, United States

Assistant Professor - Interactive Multi Media - Tenure Track
Next Games
Next Games — Helsinki, Finland

Senior Level Designer
Magic Leap, Inc.
Magic Leap, Inc. — Wellington, New Zealand

Level Designer


Michael Murphy
profile image
Interesting read. Your writing style makes it seem your looking for the Holy Grail of inventory systems... truth is... it doesn't exisit. The best we can hope for is creating a suitable system to compliment the games design.

For example, Resident Evil 4 had a creative item managment system which worked will with it's survival horror/action. It encouraged exploration due to the survival/action element for treasures,keys and ammo. Also gave a sense of choice and personal prioritization ie- I want a shitload of Red9 bullets, fuck the mine launcher etc.

Fallout 3 suffered from the stanard numbers n' spreadsheets problem. However simply incorporating weight really made the most of this apocalyptic scavenger setting. It made the system a little more intresting compared to most RPG systems which involves carrying 6 tons 'o loot to the store. Character creation was instantly involved which leads to meaningful choice.

I'm sure some other folks will come up with better examples. Good stuff.... made me think :)

Matthew Elvey Price
profile image
Honestly I think it the best inventory system depends on your type of game and audience... but it has to allow for the items in the inventory to be useful and interesting. Mass effect 1, fallout 3 and to a lesser extent oblivion made it difficult for designers to put much information about the weapons there so most end up pretty bland and identical. Mass effect 2 scraps almost the entire system just to put that information in and is better for it.

Wow, diablo, Eve, torchlight and many other games have plenty of space to put information in and lots of slots to fill allowing for combined or stacked effects which is interesting to people who want to put in the effort to find good setups.

On the other side you have the games with no inventory screen, just a set of items which serve different purposes (usually no more than 8-10). This includes almost every FPS but also games like Batman: Arkham asylum and even games like lemmings. Each item serves a simple and clear purpose and can be used whenever needed provided you have the ammo. Descriptions and stats are scrapped entirely, you learn the use of items through gameplay. Note that most of the other types also include hotkeying for various items/abilities anyway.

Limits are also quite handy but are often rather artificial. The only ones I've seen make any sense whatsoever are ones with relatively low weight limits and cargoholds in eve where you can carry a certain volume of stuff and no more.

By the way, you realise you said nothing about the game you're making or the inventory type you decided on?

Cody Kostiuk
profile image
There's no one inventory system to rule them all. It really depends on the game. There are examples of good and bad inventory systems in both simplified and complex designs.

Also, I'm a firm believer that adventure games need to go back to their text parser roots.


Jimmy Baird wrote:

"But I have thought about what I want. And it is now solved. Kthx."

It's unfortunate you didn't elaborate... or is this supposed to be a cliffhanger?

Jimmy Baird
profile image
Yeah with good intention, as it would take a bit of explanation. It's um. Well, it's abstract. Let's call it an adventure game. The solution was a suitcase & pants pockets. Suitcase is mobile, but takes a hand away. Pockets have a limited depth, but some element of unrealism is allowed. All items for inventory can fit in a pocket or 4. All items larger than a pocket are only usable in the game space/room provided. No need for a grid as such. It fits in really with everything else designed. But I still have not put much thought behind a UI or control. It has a blurry picture in my head that will come in focus shortly.

The idea is to put pressure on the player, a pressure of choice using inventory space. But without feeling like it would be a total chore every time they used their inventory. In Diablo style inventory. It is a chore. And it's dull. It'll take some more thought. But the basic idea is there.

I think with inventory. It's always going to be the same. Ideas of active and passive inventory. Active is immediately accessible, passive is accessible when conditions are met (like walking up to your stash). It's just the interface (both UI and Controller) to inventory is the tricky part. And how ergonomic you wish to make it. Quite right there is no holy grail. But there is a compromise between ugly inventory and no inventory somewhere that will sit right for the game at the time.

Michael Khuc
profile image
The latest Alone in The Dark did this with a jacket instead. It was the coolest jacket...ever.

Jimmy Baird
profile image
Yeah. I found it tedious and superfluous. I DNW.

Kevin Trepanier
profile image
Heck, game's inventory are already much more ergonomic than real life solutions! When I take out my keys out of my pockets, if there is anything else in my pockets at the moment it's sure to fall out or at least hinder my taking out the key.