One of my favourite quotes is by Richard Condon, and it goes something like this: It's no use kidding ourselves that [politicians] are ordinary people just like us, because they're not. For all the similarities, they might as well be from another planet. Probably are.
I'd like to replace the word "politicians" in the above quote with the word "game designers". Specifically, Wizards of the Coast game designers. I mean, what other conclusion are we to draw from this?
You may think me a little harsh. I suppose at first glace it might seem I am being a trifle melodramatic. Let me elaborate. What Condon was getting at was this: ordinary people by definition do not want to become politicians - because as an ordinary person why in hell would you be so lustful for power? I mean, who reading this blog would be so utterly crazy as to want the responsibility of being the leader of your country, of taking it to war or keeping it out of one, of managing its budget, of steering its policy, and who would want the sleepless nights that go with that? You would have to be mentally ill, or a sociopath, to begin with. Or so strongly motivated by a given topic that it drove you to mental illness, perhaps. (And the original motivation could be perfectly valid, of course.)
Similarly, ordinary gamers by definition do not want to become game designers, because they're having fun playing the games they're playing. It takes a special kind of person to want to become a designer, and that is somebody who is, crucially, so unsatisfied with the games that they are playing that they not only want to change them, but to change them as their calling in life.
This can be an unmitigated good impulse, a fair one, or a bad one:
The Unmitigated Good: A given person might be so unsatisfied that there is no game about managing casinos in Macao that he goes ahead and makes one. Brilliant - now there's a cool new game about managing casinos in Macao.
The Fair: A given person might be so unsatisfied with an existing game that he decides it needs changing, and strives to make those changes. This sometimes makes for a better game and sometimes doesn't. It might result in HARP, but it also might result in the third iteration of Cyberpunk.
The Bad: A given person is unsatisfied with a game for reasons that have nothing to do with anything intrinsic to that game, but rather having something to do with external factors mostly to do with Gaming with Dickheads. He then makes changes to that perfectly fine game in order to solve a problem that really doesn't exist, with lamentable results.
It seems the latter has occurred with the designers of D&D 4e and game balance, which is their overriding obsession.
See, the thing is, if you obey my cardinal rule of Not Gaming with Dickheads, you don't need such a thing as game balance. Reasonable, friendly, sociable people have fun with each other, support or take the piss out of each other depending on context, don't hog limelight, don't try to compete with one another if in the noncompetitive context of a roleplaying game, and generally contribute towards an atmosphere in which everybody enjoys themselves, gets drunk, eats lots of unhealthy food, and stays up late. Who cares if one character class happens to be a bit objectively "better" than another in that context?
The only time when balance becomes an issue in an RPG is when people start breaking social contracts and being dickheads. Viz:
"Mages can do anything any other class can do by using magic, after about 9th level, and it's just so unfair!" (Not an issue if the guy playing the mage doesn't use his magic to do everything every other class can do, in a spirit of not being a dickhead.)
"Everybody should have an equal amount of time in combat!" (Not an issue if everybody behaves like a sensible adult and doesn't hog the limelight, in a spirit of not being a dickhead.)
"If a game isn't balanced it leaves everything up to GM whim, and that means the most popular players get all the decisions in their favour!" (Not an issue if the GM... well, you get the picture.)
So I think we can only draw two conclusions from the prevalence of the cult of Game Balance at WotC. Either:
1. The designers were traumatised by gaming with dickheads in their formative years, and it motivated them to try to Change the World of D&D in a bad way;
2. Gamers who were traumatised by gaming with dickheads in their formative years became such a vocal and whiny minority that the designers had no choice but to try to pander to them.
Now, please understand me: I'm not saying 4e isn't a fun game, equally as valid as any other RPG, blah blah blah. And it doesn't impact in any way on how I interface with the hobby at large; to all intents and purposes D&D ended at 2nd edition as far as I'm concerned. But I find it, frankly, melancholic, sad, perhaps even tragic that so much effort has gone into such a Quixotic goal as "Balancing the Game" when all that really needed to be done was to slap a sticker on every 2nd edition AD&D rulebook sold saying: "Remember, kids, Don't Game with Dickheads, and Don't Be Dickheads Yourselves."