Gamer's Room 101: the argument AGAINST balance

The concept: During the 'Game Design Room 101' session at Develop, several developers brought out props to represent their pet peeves from games. If you've read the novel 1984 by George Orwell, you'll know where the concept comes from. In the UK, Room 101 is a weekly game/talk show presented by Paul Merton, who invites a guest to come on the show who then attempt to convince him that a certain annoyance in their lives should go in the bin, and never be seen again. This seminar (and series of posts) takes a look at certain elements of games that were nominated by the panel to go in the games designer's bin. Conrad and I are going to take opposite positions in the debate.

The point: Jonathan Smith of TT Games brought out a pair of scales to represent his nomination -- balance. Balance, according to Smith, is where a developer expressly sets out to tell the player "you can have this much fun", rationing the pleasure out piece by piece.

My stance:
Balance should go.

Conrad's stance:
Balance should stay.

You decide.

Balance is something a number of mainstream, cookie-cutter games succumb too -- as the game goes on, players end up doing the same actions, fighting the same enemies, at the same difficulty level. From the first ten minutes to the last, the game is perfectly balanced, and extremely boring to boot -- as players, we feel there's nothing new in store for the next 10 or 20 hours' gameplay, and we abandon the game early on feeling we've seen it all.

In contrast, games that are unbalanced -- less predictable, with difficulty spikes along with twists and turns that surprise the player -- are a lot more enjoyable, especially for those of us with negligible attention spans. We like to be challenged; we like to be surprised. We like the feeling of power that comes from conquering an easy section after overcoming the challenges of an extremely tricky part; we like not knowing whether we'll be able to finish the game or not. The examples Smith gave are Trauma Center and his own Lego Star Wars, as opposed to run-of-the-mill 'balanced' games like Call of Duty 2. While CoD2 is arguably a good game, players know they'll be able to finish it -- should that be the case?

As well as those with mixed balance, some of us even prefer games that are just plain hard, games with puzzles and problems that leave one scratching one's head for hours on end (rather than games which leave one cursing one's clumsy hands for not being as skilful with a controller as the designers expected). So, in balance and let us struggle for once -- reward us with easy sections and give us a feeling of power. That's all we ask.