Over the last few months or so, maybe as far back as a year, I've seen numerous people, mostly game designers and GMs, make the claim that game balance isn't all that important. Some have even gone so far as to claim that it is a 'sacred cow' of the gaming industry, something everyone points to as needing, when in fact it is not really all that important to have at all. Now, the first time I saw this I was incredibly confused by it. How is game balance not something that you want in your game? This was made even worse by the fact that while I could find people saying game balance was a sacred cow that needed slaughtering, I couldn't really find the reasoning behind it. So, I did some digging, and I want to talk about it today. With luck, we can actually get some good discussion going.
Now, I don't know if this is the case for everyone who has claimed that game balance is a myth, and an unneeded thing to pursue, but it is the most common argument that I have seen. The argument goes as such. Game balance isn't important, because the purpose of Role Playing isn't to win or lose, but to have fun playing the game, and tell a good story in the process. As such, the GM can cover for any game balance by controlling what happens inside of the game. If a player makes a broken combat build, and the GM wants to challenge them, then they can follow the same guidelines, or even cheat to force the challenge. If the GM wants Player B to overcome a certain obstacle, but Player A looks more capable to do it, then the GM can restrict Player A from trying in some way, or otherwise custom tailor it so that it is there for Player B only. I'm sure you get the idea.
Basically, the idea rests on the golden rule of gaming that the GM is the final arbiter of the rules, and that they can delete, change, or add to the rules as they see fit. This puts the responsibility for the game, and the fun of the players, squarely on the GMs shoulders. To be fair, that is primarily where that burden already rests.This is also taken as something of a basic concept, at least amongst all the "good" GMs I've spoken to. Tailoring challenges to the players, and setting obstacles before specific characters, is just part and parcel with confronting that character and prompting them to grow and change in the story being told. I'm not sure that every group does it, or every GM, but the advice is fairly solid for it. Those that don't do it, if they have fun their way, then that is fine to. However, this idea as a replacement for at least attempting some form of game balance? I'm not sure.
First, I want to say that I don't disagree with the reason for why so many have said game balance isn't necessary. The GM is responsible for the story of the game, and carries the lion's share of the responsibility for a fun and engaging game. Yes, the players can shoulder the load too, and they should, but the primary responsibility for it lies on the GM's head. However, I am not sure that I agree that their reasoning actually excuses a lack of game balance.
In my opinion, what they are actually arguing with that reasoning is that character balance isn't needed for a game, and for that I agree whole heartedly. As a Story Teller type GM you should be able to handle a group that is all over the place in the power curve. You should be able to challenge the Superman, the Batman, the Robin (young robin for the purposes of this), and the Lois Lane in the same game. Those are four characters with four very different levels of ability, power, and methods of operation, but it should be doable. How? Well, exactly as laid out above. You custom tailor the challenges for the characters, and you make it so that only the character it is made for can get to it (or that they at least get first crack at it.) Don't want Batman handling Robin's challenges? Then get Batman out of the picture. Give him his challenge that also needs to be done, so he is choiced with solving Robin's challenge, or his own, and no there isn't time to do both by himself. Character balance can be fixed by a GM should they want to, and by all means I agree that you don't need it in a game - provided the GM wants that kind of game.
Game balance though? I think game balance, as in a truly balanced game, is impossible to achieve. Unless you make one set of abilities and just change the fluff around those mechanics and give them to everyone, you will never have a truly balanced game. However, just because you can't achieve it, doesn't mean that you should ignore it or turn your back on it. You can mitigate the impacts the lack of balance can have, make it so that things are as close to "separate but equal" as you can get them. You might miss, but it is important that you try, and the reasons for it are many.
For one, an unbalanced game can be very unfun for the people inside of it. It sucks making a beat stick, only to find out that someone else found the perfect combination of abilities to be a better beat stick and the group rogue. This kind of lack of balance can also turn off a large portion of the market. What about those groups who prefer more adversarial GM roles? Or just like the pure combat of things? If the game is unbalanced then they have issues, and are less likely to enjoy the game. Maybe your game isn't made for them - hey, that is fine - but surely a good game can accommodate both right?
For two, players are smart, and they will find the most powerful way to build a character in any game you put out there. It isn't unreasonable for a player to want their character to be good at the things they want them to be good at. The less balance in a game, the less variance you then get in your characters. Honestly, in my opinion, if there is some optional thing (a feat, talent, advantage, or something else the player can choose) that the common view is you're being silly for not taking, then something has gone wrong on the design phase. A great example of this happened recently in City of Heroes. The developers discovered that some ridiculously high number of characters (like more than 80%) all had the optional Fitness power pool, and that many builds were rated by whether or not they needed fitness to run. In response? As of the most recent issue, Fitness is now inherent for all characters, and those power choices have been freed up for players to make more varied builds.
Now, there are more reasons than those two, but those are the biggest two I can see (shutting off people/making it unfun, and stagnation of what is used). Other things that come up are things like power creep, where the older material just goes away as things get more and more ridiculous, which in turn can turn away some of your older players who just don't like the new scale the game is at.
It should go without saying that I think game balance is important. Yes, it can be made up for with good GMing, but that should be the group's choice, not the designers. What about you? How do you feel about this?