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Many RPGs have you collecting items (like books, or cosmetics) as inventory items, which you then have to "use" to actually unlock their benefits (say a higher knowledge stat, or being able to use the cosmetic on your character), forcing you to stop periodically in game and using all those items to clear up inventory space.

This is often the case even for items that can't be traded or sold, and for items that have a standard description (you would miss no lore by having the game immediately unlock the cosmetic). Is there a game design reason behind this? Things I could think of:

  1. Artificially extending play time to prevent players from being done too early.
  2. Allowing the player to not unlock an item to keep their list of available "free of junk cosmetics" they wouldn't use anyway.
  3. Making it more like a simulation of real life, where you also have to unwrap purchases or read books to learn
  4. Allow items to drop in combat without triggering the "reward animations", which can then be postponed to when the item is used.
  5. Cause additional artificial scarcity in the inventory system.
  6. It's just been done like that in Ultima or whatever, and devs mindlessly copied the design.
  7. Engine limitations.

None of these seem really convincing. #1 is a very dissatisfying way to extend playtime, and #3 doesn't really simulate much. #2 would work but is also done for things that aren't listed but just result in a form of XP.

#4 would work, but many of these still present level up dialogs during combat instead of making them an item, and many also don't show any rewarding animations when using these items.

#5 There are so many better ways for causing scarcity in inventories to prevent people from gaining resources too quick or not focusing on certain gear and switching at will instead.

#6 So many things have been re-thought in games, and this seems like extra effort for most engines when a less cumbersome mechanism also exists for other items.

#7 Since most MMORPG engines have to implement transaction guarantees for the systems you already have for currencies and XP, I don't see how modeling a book as an item would be any improvement over using.

Does anyone have a reference to an industry source that explained why things like this are done?

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I'd say many of the reasons you cite might be in play in any particular game. Remember that a reason doesn't have to be compelling to you to have made sense to the designer or programmer at the time. Game developers disagree about the best mechanic for a particular application all the time. 😉

But I think a major factor that you haven't listed so far is player attention.

When a player is in combat or dungeon-delving mode, their attention focuses narrowly on the task at hand. To an outside observer, it can look like they're deliberately ignoring information on the screen or being conveyed to them by sound if it's not specifically related to what they're trying to do this moment. This can lead to much pulling of hair by designers watching playtests, trying to figure out why players aren't getting any benefit from their carefully-crafted tutorials or mission guidance.

This is due to a phenomenon called inattentional blindness. You might have seen it in the form of this counting challenge - they like to show this video in driver's ed. 😁 When a person is focused on a task, any information they're not actively looking for can actually vanish from their perception entirely - it's like it wasn't even there.

So if you're trying to tell the player they just picked up a green feather cosmetic while they're furiously clicking attack and watching their healing spell's recharge timer... they might not register that information at all.

And a reward the player isn't aware of fails to make them feel rewarded - you've just wasted one of your finite cosmetic items and the artists' time needed to craft it, for zero impact on this player's perception of that moment in play.

This can happen even outside of active combat. Say I've just finished defeating the enemies in the room and I'm running around cleaning up the loot. I'm looking for healing potions to make sure I'm in good shape for the next fight, or crafting materials for that next upgrade I'm thinking about. I'm high on adrenaline and eager to rush back to town to finish the quest and claim my reward. In that situation too, I might often neglect or only half-register a loot item I wasn't specifically looking for.

This is even worse for items that give an active benefit, like a new skill. If I don't notice when it unlocks, then I'm liable to not realize I have the skill and fail to use it for a long time, getting no benefit from the careful design, coding, animation, and effects work that went into crafting that skill.

But when the player is in the menus managing their inventory, you know the inventory items have their full attention. I'll look at each one, register that it's new/unused, and process/participate in the act of using/unlocking it - so I experience that sense of reward, or at least notice that I got something.

We could try to signal these things louder in the midst of play the way we do with level up effects - but just think how flashy the level up effects need to be to get the player's attention when they're in the middle of a fight. Now imagine every bit of skill or cosmetic loot setting off a firework show on that scale. It gets noisy and distracting. It's worth doing for level ups in many games because your level is SO central to everything your character does. You never say, "Oh, I don't care about level 5" the way you might say "Oh, I don't care about that green feather cosmetic". Leveling up is always a salient piece of information that could impact the outcome of the very battle you're fighting, so it's worth treating differently here.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 For bringing up topics of attention and the sense of reward. In some cases you end up acting that feeling of reward twice, once when you get an item and once more when you go into your inventory to find out what it does (especially if it's a one-off or the first time seeing a new item). Like OP's #3, except the feeling of getting and then unwrapping a present rather than a simple purchase. \$\endgroup\$ – DoctorPenguin Jul 1 at 15:39
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I know skyrim allows you to use spell tomes/skill books to level up your skill by one or unlock a new spell, but you can get one of these books multiple times so you can use it your first time, but why use it again, so you can sell it. Or you might just sell it in the first place if your build doesn't require this school of magic that this new spell tome you found gives you a spell from. It just kinda allows the player more freedom I suppose.

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