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I am currently developing a simple 2d MMORPG. My current focus is the inventory system.

I am currently wondering if I should implement a limit on what a player character can carry. Either in form of a maximum weight, a limited number of inventory slots, or a combination of both. Almost every MMORPG I ever played limits inventory space. But plausibility aside, is this really necessary from a gameplay point of view? Maybe it would in fact improve the game experience when I just let the players carry as much stuff as they want.

tl;dr: What is the game development rationale behind limiting carrying capacity of player characters?

Edit: Thanks for all the answers so far. They all were very insightful. After your input I decided to go for a limited inventory to prevent people from carrying too many healing items and too much specialized equipment into dungeons. To avoid the problem of loot overload and having to return to the town all the time, I plan to give players the ability to send items from their inventory directly to their storage (but not the ability to retrieve them in the field). I accepted the answer by Kylotan for now, but do not let this discourage you from posting additional answers, when you feel that some interesting aspect wasn't covered yet.

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The simplest answer has nothing to do with gameplay, and everything to do with tracking. Simply put, the more potential items one player can have at once, the higher the memory requirement for that player. It's likely not a huge deal, but it's there. –  Raven Dreamer Oct 15 '12 at 15:50
    
This question looks more like community wiki. –  joltmode Oct 15 '12 at 16:34
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I must say … Stalker has an inventory limit of 60 kg (200 with Exoskeleton) and I find it only playable with a trainer that disables this limitation. I may not be a classical "gamer", but this is my favourite game and I only like to play it with a full inventory. –  Felix Dombek Oct 16 '12 at 2:01
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7 Answers

up vote 29 down vote accepted

Much of game design is about resource management, because deciding how best to use limited resources is an interesting choice that games can easily implement. Limiting the inventory forces players to think about the value of each item and make decisions on whether to hoard or sell their loot, and on which items to carry out into battle with them.

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Exactly. An RPG that lets you carry unlimited health potions for example, probably wouldn't be that interesting. –  jdeseno Oct 15 '12 at 15:50
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@jdeseno Not necessarily. As long as you can't use them all simultaneously, there might still be resource management inherent in deciding when to use it. –  Raven Dreamer Oct 15 '12 at 15:51
    
@jdeseno not if there's actually a working economy in the game. In Diabo 2 you would indeed gather thousands of potions, but in Diablo 3 you would rather buy potions once a day, and save as much money as possible for better gear. –  Markus von Broady Oct 15 '12 at 15:58
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Much of game design is about interesting resource management. With the exception of shipping cargo around in Puzzle Pirates and Eve Online, I've never found WoW-style or Diablo-style inventory management to be interesting . . . mostly frustrating. –  ZorbaTHut Oct 15 '12 at 18:14
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It's a subjective matter. If I could carry infinite stuff in such games then some frustrations would certainly be gone but certain situations in the game would become much less interesting. Choices can be both frustrating and interesting, in my opinion. –  Kylotan Oct 16 '12 at 0:09
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In Lineage (2 at least) the weight limit seemed pretty much like a requirement as if you could stack an infinite number of potions and soulshots/spiritshots, you'd never need to return to town and could grind in a dungeon forever and ever... ^^

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Skyward Sword had one of my favorite inventory management systems. You had limited "pouches" for ancillary items, and you had to store the ones you didn't need in the item check. You could buy more pouches for items increasing the amount you could carry with you. And you could also buy/find duplicates of items (mainly the ammunition bags and medals) allowing you to play how you want.

The good part is that while you had limited space for items, the main weapons you had enough space for, so you had everything you needed, but you could tailor your inventory to suit your preference. At one point I filled my pouches with just upgraded quivers so I could snipe to my hearts content.

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Realism would surely be one rationale. One thing that bugs me in games like Oblivion is that there's a threshold for weight - if you're over it, you just can't move at all. I mean, how plausible is it that you can run and jump at full speed while carrying 187kg of armour and weapons and random potions without any apparent means of them even being attached to your body, and then you pick up a flower that weights 0.1kg, and suddenly you can't move? It's a real jarring point that brings home that you're playing flawed game, and kicks you right out of your escapism trip.

Far more sensible would be to have weight affect speed - once you start carrying a lot, you start to slow down, eventually slow to a crawl. This would still have all the advantages mentioned in other answers - challenge, for instance, but would be far more realistic, and immersive.

Daggerfall also had a system where you could buy a cart, which you could drive around, and fill with crap. You couldn't take it into dungeons and shops, but you could raid a dungeon, and come back and unload into your cart a few times before heading to the shops to sell your loot. That was a very cool system, and it'd be nice to see it in other games.

You could also have a "bulk" system, where after you start carrying too much volume, it starts to affect your agility, so you have to do actions slower. Might get a bit complex though.

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I think an important point has not been covered here. If you let people have unlimited inventory space, they will soon enough (depending on your itemization model) have filled their inventory with a crazy amount of items.

Unless you've designed the most amazing inventory management system ever with search and filter capabilities matching those of Gmail and beyond, you will have players give up your game out of frustration ("Where did I put my Great Axe of Beheading again? Page 58?")

If you want the player to have unlimited space, force her to organize her items by (for example) letting her create labelled chests where she can "archive" items of interest, keeping them away from her inventory.

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I think a player will sell everything he doesn't need for money, and so he would archive all remaining items. I don't like this answer as it's promoting mindless gameplay: we give you a limited inventory space, so you don't get lost in hundreds of items you forgot to sell. –  Markus von Broady Oct 15 '12 at 22:51
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@MarkusvonBroady Well, I'm afraid that it will happen. I don't have an actual case study to prove it, but I have watched many players in various games, and analyzed how they use their inventory space. It seems that the amount of junk (this is assuming the common mechanic that players can find junk items to increase number of unique gameplay events without skewing item economy) they keep directly correlates to the amount of total space that they have available. Infinite space would eliminate the reason to remove items from inventory completely and ruin the experience. –  Blixt Oct 15 '12 at 23:24
    
This is assuming average players. Depending on the game, you may be directed towards very in-depth players who really care to organize everything. You've got a wide spectrum of potential players, with different behaviors. But I would say that my answer covers 99% of WoW players, for example. –  Blixt Oct 15 '12 at 23:25
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There are a few reasons why people don't sell items, and that comes down to design choice. If you want them to sell items, it better be an easyprocess, a good example is in Guild Wars 2 where you can pick up all items from mobs by pressing F. This means the inventory fills up quickly. Had they not have the "Sell Junk" button at all vendors, it becomes very tedious for players to sell items 1 by 1. Couple this with unlimited space, people would just keep things lying around. In either case, having to go to town or a vendor to sell items is a pain... some just avoid it until they really have to. –  Jamornh Oct 16 '12 at 11:39
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I'm somewhat surprised nobody's linked to this Penny Arcade strip yet. –  Ilmari Karonen Oct 20 '12 at 10:50
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Limiting inventory can make sense.

Doesn't make sense:

  • limiting just for sake of limiting; there's no purpose, and hence, no sense.
  • limiting to limit, again only for sake of limiting, without any competition meaning; as Kylotan said, you can limit players, forcing them to think what they need to take on a fight; but what if they can just teleport to base any time, like in Diablo 2 - this makes the limit only annoying to the player.
  • realism - you fly on a huge dragon, that would biologically need to eat a herd of cows every month, fight with a 5-meter flaming sword without any burns on your face, appear from nowhere when logging in, but suddenly you need to limit your capacity just for the sake of realism and nothing else?

Makes sense:

  • to save storage (database) space
  • to sell more space, like backpacks in WoW, or upgrading stash in Diablo 3; most of RPG games feed on the feel of growth, your level grows, your experience grows, your wealth grows, then why not your storage capacity?
  • to involve some additional fun like storing items in Diablo 2 efficiently (as they have different shapes)
  • to force trading; again Diablo is a good example - at some moment you have so many set items, that you can no longer store them - it's best then to exchange some items from sets you don't need, for items from sets you want to collect.
  • realism for sake of immersion as Mitchell stated in his answer.
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I'd say using Diablo 2 as an example of "limiting to limit" isn't accurate because of items that give an effect in inventory (charms). This is also something for the Makes Sense column; infinite space with items that give passive benefit = infinite power. –  Orin MacGregor Oct 15 '12 at 16:07
    
@OrinMacGregor I didn't say Diablo 2 doesn't make sense. I said if you can teleport to base anytime and cheap like in Diablo 2, then limiting your inventory doesn't make sense. Of course it doesn't apply to the Diablo 2, because of the charms you mentioned. –  Markus von Broady Oct 15 '12 at 16:13
    
My mistake. I interpreted the whole block as applying to D2. –  Orin MacGregor Oct 15 '12 at 16:27
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Limited space for charms but infinite space for others is an idea, except it makes the whole concept of in game gold obsolete. You get to hold an infinite amount of items, which equates to infinite gold (especially when dealing with the items that sell for 35k). Gold is lost on death, but items aren't (ignoring hardcore mode). Sell some items to recoup lost gold and proceed. Might as well make any purchasable commodity free and assign no value to items. And way before patch 1.09 they had talks of implementing a universal stash, but sales had fallen so cost to implement wasn't worth it. –  Orin MacGregor Oct 15 '12 at 16:57
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The charms in Diablo were added with one of the later updates to D2. They were not part of the original game design and thus certainly not the reason why they made the inventory so limited. They do, however, build on that mechanic. When carrying charms, the player is trading inventory space for more power. –  Philipp Oct 15 '12 at 17:51
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Limiting the inventory serves two reasons:

Immersion

It doesn't make sense to carry every item you can pick up. Limiting your inventory prevents breaking the player's immersion in the game world. This is why most modern shooters have a limited amount of weapon slots.

Challenge

It forces the player to make choices about what equipment to pick up, and what to leave behind, as well as preventing the hoarding of items which would make the game too easy. This is the most common reason for games to limit the inventory.

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Thanks, I'm adding "realism" to my "doesn't make sense". –  Markus von Broady Oct 15 '12 at 16:25
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You're missing my point (which is probably my fault). It's not the realism that matters, it's the immersion. Realism is an easy way to immerse the player into the game's world, because they're already familiar with it. The most important thing about immersion is consistency. For example: it's fine to have 200 weapons disappear in a magic bag that makes sense in the game's world, as long as they don't disappear into thin air. I changed the header from "Realism" to "Immersion" in my answer, to better reflect what I intended. –  Mitchell Oct 15 '12 at 16:37
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A inventory only adds immersion if the limits are actually realistic, else the people will lose all sense of immersion when they think "How the fuck can that dude carry 5 sets of heavy armor?". A inventory like in The Witcher adds immersion, but less so a inventory like in Diablo (or the hundred other games that copied it.) –  Mr. Beast Oct 16 '12 at 5:23
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@Philipp Be aware though that explaining everything with "it's magic" might break the game story- and/or lore-wise. Most games that fail (even triple-A) do so because they are inconsistent within themselves. –  Mike Oct 16 '12 at 7:56
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@MarkusvonBroady I agree with Mitchell Ensink, you should add challenge, and hints of realism isn't a bad thing, just don't format yourself to it. If something was completely unrealistic, it would eventually reach a point which the end user might not completely comprehend what's going on. Some realistic elements will always exist, and should. If I go by your idea, does that mean I shouldn't use trees in my game because they are real existing things? Realism isn't bad, too much is. Games don't have to be a completely different reality to be enjoyable. –  tsturzl Oct 16 '12 at 14:46
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