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How game designers handle the burden of encumbrance

It's common in a lot of survival and role-playing games to pick up an item, and suddenly find yourself glued to the floor. We speak with creators on games like Fallout, Fable and more to get down to the design motivations behind encumbrance.

Jack Yarwood

May 18, 2021

10 Min Read

It’s common in a lot of survival and role-playing games to pick up an item, and suddenly find yourself glued to the floor and unable to move. 

Encumbrance typically happens when the weight of your inventory exceeds the amount you can physically carry, and can be frustrating for a bunch of reasons. Not only can it result in a ton of annoying busywork, as you have to rifle through your inventory to find ways to lighten your load, but it can also feel counterintuitive if you are used to collecting everything in sight. 

There are a number of reasons why developers still choose to include encumbrance in their games. Despite the issues, it can add a degree of authenticity to certain ‘survival’ scenarios, shrink inventory sizes, and give you more meaningful decisions to make about what to take with you. Like many aspects of design, whether or not it is well received all depends on the execution, and how the mechanic ties into the overall theming and the other systems in place.

Limiting frustration

Game designer Tim Cain has discussed encumbrance at the start of almost every project he’s worked on – an impressive list that includes RPGs such as Fallout 1 and 2, Arcanum, Pillars of Eternity, and most recently The Outer Worlds. In all that time, he has always treated encumbrance as one of many the decisions the player has to make when playing his games. However, he’s used slightly different encumbrance rules on almost all of the titles he’s worked on. This refers not only to how your encumbrance is measured, but also what you can do with your inventory.

“I think encumbrance is one of those things where no matter what decision you put in your game there’s going to be a subset of your game players that finds something about your encumbrance that they don’t like,” says Cain. “And your goal can be about making that the smallest subset possible or your goal can be to make what they’re complaining about a very minor thing in the game.”

As a result of this, in many of the meetings Cain has been a part of, the idea of removing encumbrance entirely has come up, to satisfy those who have a dislike for the mechanic. But he’s always quick to point out that while this may seem like a promising solution at first, it can create other production issues elsewhere. For instance, it can put a lot more pressure on your UI team, as there are then a lot more items that need to be displayed at once.

“You end up with enormous inventory sizes and there’s the issue of well, how do you manage that?” says Cain. “And there’s different ways. You can say ‘Well, we’ll limit how much they can pick up,’ but you’ve now done encumbrance. You’ve just given it a hard limit. Or you can say, ‘We’ll break things down into categories or we’ll let things stack,’ but then you’ve just introduced all these extra issues of now you have pages of inventory or categories, or stacks of items. How do I sell part of a stack or how do I use part of a stack? What if two items are almost identical, but not quite?

“No matter what you decide to do…you’ve made a decision and created…issues that you have to resolve later. So games that say they don’t have encumbrance, the first thing I say is, ‘What did you do with your inventory? How did you fix that?’”

Rather than removing encumbrance entirely, a lot of the games Cain has worked on over the years put a focus instead on giving the player more options of what they can do with their inventory. In Fallout, for example, you can always drop items on the ground, store objects in crates, or barter with NPCs, while in The Outer Worlds it is possible for you to sell items to vendors or hacked vending machines, and dismantle excess weapons and armor to modify your existing gear. Because of this, both games let you know that some items will be disposable, and gives you plenty of options of what to do with them.   

“I always try to make a point of if you encounter a lot of creatures [that] drop stuff, either don’t make those things worth a lot of money or make sure [those things] have choices of what to do with them,” says Cain. “Basically, if it is frustrating, don’t make it frustrating for very long.”

Making frustration the point

Of course, there is no one-size fits all approach to how to handle encumbrance, and there are always exceptions or outliers to consider. 

Sometimes the limitations placed on the player can actually be the point of the experience, which is something Cain readily admits when talking about Death Stranding – Kojima Productions’ game about a delivery person connecting a strangely Icelandic-looking vision of post-apocalyptic North America.  

In Death Stranding, you play as the porter Sam Bridges and must make deliveries over all kinds of treacherous terrain, with the cargo you're carrying impacting both your walking speed and balance. It’s all part of an experience that’s specifically designed around communicating the physical challenges of lugging heavy equipment long distances. As a result, you spend most of your time figuring out the most efficient way forward in order to fulfill your requests and earn better grades. 

“If you’re going to have an encumbrance mechanic – especially if you’re making a game about a package delivery person -- yeah, build it right into the game’s controls, the game’s terrain, your movement system,” Cain says. “In some sense, it’s brilliant because that’s a game about being encumbered and trying to get around.”

Spencer Yan, the developer of the upcoming survival game My Work is Not Yet Done, agrees. But he’s also quick to point out the shortcomings. 

“I think Death Stranding's approach is really interesting and unique, but also highly situational and specific to its own designs,” states Yan. “Most people are not Sam Porter Bridges and will not find themselves in situations where they have to haul excessive loads that occupy not just considerable weight, but also space (and especially vertical space...), so the raw transferability of that mechanic is in my opinion fairly limited given the game's unique approach to Sam's profession.”

With that being said, there are some minor similarities between his own project and Death Stranding, in that they both aim to depict the physical and mental toil of hiking long distances with a full inventory fastened to your back. However, in My Work is Not Yet Done, this is not represented through a precarious balancing act, as seen in Death Stranding, but through a number of hidden stats representing your both physical and psychic condition.

Set within a fictionalized version of a state park in what would be modern-day Georgia, My Work is Not Yet Done follows a character called Avery, the last remaining survivor of a doomed expedition, as she tracks down the source of an inscrutable signal. The game doesn’t just have one inventory, but several sub-inventories which are separated into kits. Each of these kits has its own specific weight and volume. Depending on what you put inside them, the weight will change and contribute more to your overall encumbrance, but the volume of items you can carry in each will always remain fixed. 

Unlike in other games that rely on a strength stat, here it’s Avery’s body weight and fitness that dictate how much you can comfortably carry (this value never changes throughout the game). You can also still move when you’re over-encumbered, but deciding to do so will lead to a sharp decline in both your mood and energy.

“The practical effect is that the player is essentially always fighting a losing battle of sorts against physics, in that any kind of action is going to fatigue them,” explains Yan. “The priority is shifted then onto fatigue recovery instead, which sidesteps Fallout's camel encumbrance by allowing you to temporarily perform massive hauls at normal speed, but with considerable long-term consequences.”

Carry Weight Vs. Equip Load

Besides Death Stranding, designers also commonly point to the 'Soulsborne' games when discussing novel ways of approaching encumbrance. This is because these games typically deviate from the norm by only counting the items you have equipped rather than the contents of your entire inventory. This way the games prioritize the choices that are the most compelling to make, such as what weapon or armor you want to equip, rather than whether you have room to carry whatever will be dropped next. 

Dene Carter is the co-creator of Fable and is currently working on a retro, tile-based RPG called Moonring, that borrows this approach. For him, Bloodborne and Dark Souls are some of the few games that get encumbrance right. 

“It's all about what your intent is--like all design,” says Carter. “If your intent is to entertain, you want to ensure your product is entertaining. You want your 'frustration' points to be very carefully considered and part of the important core mechanics and nowhere else.  

“These games are all about understanding. The deeper you understand the world and its rules and its lore, the more you get from the game. ‘Don't go over 24 percent encumbrance or you'll fat-roll’ is critical information. There's [obviously] no fat-roll in Moonring, but…your ability to dodge an arrow is literally linked to how long your 'move' translates to in game-ticks. Go over 2x encumbrance and you'll find you just can't move very fast. And those arrows are going to hit.”

In a lot of ways, this is similar to the approach taken elsewhere in Pillars of Eternity. In that game, there is no traditional carry weight, meaning you can pick up whatever, but your recovery speed between turns will take a hit depending on the types of clothing or armor you have equipped. Like the above, here the focus remains exclusively on the more interesting decisions that result from inventory management without getting too bogged down in the nitty gritty of what you can or cannot carry. 

“The way Josh Sawyer designed the encumbrance [in Pillars of Eternity] was your own personal inventory encumbers you, but then you push items into a stash,” says Cain. “It was effectively infinite in size, but it was only accessible when you went back to town [on harder difficulty modes]. If you picked something up and threw it in your stash, you couldn’t touch it for the rest of that dungeon or that adventure. I like that, because it means you can pick up everything you found, but at some point, you had to decide what to do with it.”

As you can see, there isn’t just one way of thinking about encumbrance, but several depending on the type of game being made. Given the highly-specific nature of the mechanic, it needs to resonate with the decisions the developers have taken elsewhere to avoid creating unnecessary frustration or problems in the design. And even then, it’s a fine line between creating something that works and something that adds to the problems the player encounters. 

“I think like a lot of system mechanics, everything kind of skirts the edge between being challenging and being frustrating,” says Cain. “And I think if you ask 10 different game developers what they’re going to do, you’re going to get 10 different answers. There really is no one right answer.”

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