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When you give the player a rare but powerful item which can only be used once but is never really required to proceed, most players will not use it at all, because they are waiting for the perfect moment. But even when this moment comes, they will still be reluctant to use it, because there might be an even better moment later. So they keep hoarding it for a moment which will never come.

In the end, they will carry the item around until it is outclassed by other, more readily available resources, or even until the very end of the game. That means that such one-shot items don't provide any gameplay-value at all. They are simply too awesome to use.

What can you do to encourage the player to make use of their one-shot items and not hoard them?

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Not swamping players with loot is a crucial first step to getting players to recognise, store and use the special item at a good time... in conjunction with many very constructive viewpoints offered here, including limiting carrying and usage, and economic interplay.

Cognition

Often, players don't use what they're given because there is just too damn much loot, too much chaff and not enough of real value, dropping constantly. Sacred II is one example of this. Nearly everything was magical; rarely was a new drop worth swapping out for.

In order for something to appear "special" it has to (a) stand out visually from the rest and (b) even if visually distinct, not be a needle in the haystack of "items which I'll put aside for later use". This means pacing special drops.

In most games, items are represented by 2D icons only, and in those like Skyrim where they are full 3D objects, so many objects are so heavily visually embellished that it's hard to tell the "special" from the "mundane". I find the general visual trends of a lot of modern, "loot-heavy" games to be overwhelming, even draining. There is often too much to process. Lower budget games seem to be better in this sense, since they have an art budget that only allows simple art styles. Simple is good.

TL;DR Cases for different games over time

As you look over Action RPGs you see a trend of increasing drops, which has largely contributed to irrelevant drops. One of the worst games for this was Sacred II. Just about everything was magical, yet almost none of it was worth swapping your current items out for. D2 had special graphics for uniques but sadly reused graphics for higher level base items, once again reducing cognition.

If you go back to games like Darkstone and Diablo I, or earlier games like Shadowlands, you begin to see far fewer magical items, and far fewer items per se. This sort of approach enables easier cognition of the really special items, like Windforce or Messerschmidt's Axe. In Moria and Angband, there is a good sliding scale on this, with almost all mundane items early on and almost all powerful items near the end of the game.

Baldur's Gate, an RPG in the traditional 80's/90's CRPG mould, somehow always had me using the special items. I learned to trust BG that way, as I found that specials were absolutely worth using and conferred substantial bonuses. This may be in part due to the well-defined D&D combat systems.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer doesn't seem to address the issue of the question at all. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Jan 4 '14 at 19:04
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Break the rules

This question arises from the already standard item system in most of the RPG games. The perfect example would be potions, there have been many memes regarding the collecting of potions, because "I might need them later".

Every RPG producer had to face the problem and many have failed. This comes from the wrong understanding that

"The item system works like this and it has to work like this, because every other game does it like this!".

But it doesn't. And The Witcher 3 proves it.

In The Witcher 3 the potion system works differently. Here you have a limit of potions you can carry, but after using them you can refill them anytime outside of battle using alcohol.

"But there will be no fun of searching for that legendary potion/item!"

You are right. After using your potion there will be no fun of searching for it again. However if not the system - the player wouldn't even use the item - meaning there would be no fun either. Players often prefer to die and fight again than to use that "too awesome to use" item.

This system brings a different "fun mechanic" though. Instead of searching for that potion you used in a fight, you will spend your time searching for an upgrade of that potion. It can even introduce additional quests to the gameplay.


In your case

There may be a thousand solutions to your problem and it's usually a bad idea to force a player to do something by external limits, like time limit or to reward player for using the item. Tynan Sylvester covers the topic in his book Designing Games: A Guide to Engineering Experiences. So before adding artificial rewards or punishments you should really consider advantages and disadvantages of that.

I already brought up the topic of potions in The Witcher 3, so to reflect it on your situation you could design the item to be "craftable". Let's say - you found that legendary weapon and will not use it in a fight, because you will lose it forever. But in our situation finding this item also allows you to craft it later. Or if the item was something magical - it allows you to summon it in a magic location.

It not only won't reduce the fun of using this item - it might increase it hugely by adding new mechanics to the game.

In any case you should still balance the item - "awesome" shouldn't mean "gamebreaking". If it is a single use item which kills a dragon in a second then it probably needs balancing anyway.

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If an item is too good to be at least rare (such as the Megalixer), yet it is a 1-use/expendable, yeah players are going to hoard it.

This isn't really a problem. Your game is cooler for having awesome rare items that don't manage to break the game. And there's always the 1 in a million chance that a player would find such an item useful.

But if these ultra-cool unattainable non-usables still bother you, it sounds like the item may need to be:

a) reduced in effectiveness and made more common

b) made at least replaceable (if at an astronomical price)

c) made not expendable but given a really long recharge time instead

d) taken out of the game altogether

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Maybe it'll will work in "super-need" situation. e.g.: a-bomb got 2000 points of splash damage, typical mobs got only 100 health points and easily beaten with sword. but here comes boss with 2500 health points and his minions. you can't beat him... or you can, if you use your a-bomb. then boss will stay alone with 500 health points, so you can (not so) easily kick his *.

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    \$\begingroup\$ What if the player uses the a-bomb before reaching the boss? \$\endgroup\$
    – dpatchery
    May 15 '13 at 17:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ Morrowind-like thing? "Live in your sacred world now"? Actualy, i see other question in topic - "How to make player use awesome feature". Not "how to keep player from using awesome feature". But yeah, my "a-bomb" thought is not so transparent tho. Will try pick other example later. \$\endgroup\$
    – KatShot
    May 15 '13 at 20:07
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You can punish the player for carrying it, either by taking up many available slots, or slowing him down, you can make him unable to use other weapons when carrying it, and you can make the vending price low. Also, you could make the ammo of a radioactive type, which decays so its strength is reducing while carrying it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, all of those would make me throw it away, not use it. \$\endgroup\$ May 15 '13 at 18:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ You cant throw it away, its bound to you until you use it. \$\endgroup\$
    – user30714
    May 15 '13 at 18:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ And that would make me stop playing the game. Giving me an item that inhibits my ability to play is not fun. \$\endgroup\$ May 15 '13 at 18:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ Great, aslong as you already bought it, we are glad to get rid of you. \$\endgroup\$
    – user30714
    May 15 '13 at 18:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't like games in which it is better for a player to waste a valuable item than to conserve it. If there are limited inventory slots, a player may decide that dropping an unused item and taking something else would be better than keeping the unused item and forgoing the new item, but to the extent possible a game should allow the player to return for the dropped item should that be desired. \$\endgroup\$
    – supercat
    May 16 '13 at 22:41
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