Conversations on CRPGs inevitably turn to balance. At least, they do when the game in question is World of Warcraft. WoW has seen continuous development since 2004 and eight years later, Blizzard is still trying to balance it. Erich Schaefer, one of the designers behind the original Diablo and more recently, Torchlight, says that these types of games are just too complex to balance and even then, this perfect world of equality would be "boring" anyway.
No one likes playing a character they feel is gimped. Sometimes, there's novelty value -- have a crack at a low-intelligence PC in Fallout or Arcanum -- but in today's world of theme park MMOs, believing one's character to be underpowered holds little charm. Schaefer, speaking with The Critical Bit, feels that given how many different system interact with each other in RPGs, reaching a state of utopian balance would not be that fun anyway:
I could expound on the complexity forever, but it’s pretty dry to discuss and probably not that much different from any other RPG, so let me digress to where I think our methods are different, and where it gets fun, for me, at least. I don’t even try to balance the game! ... There are too many systems and too much randomness for my puny brain to deal with. But the more important reason is that I think balance is boring. I specifically want you to find a weapon that's just too good. I want you to discover a skill combo that makes killing certain monsters seem too easy.
Essentially Schaefer is saying that these "imbalance spikes" are an important part of what makes loot-centric RPGs so exciting. As long as they're temporary, there's nothing wrong with the player feeling super-powerful for a period of time. As Oblivion's levelled mobs showed, getting your arse handed to you by the same bandit that killed you 10 levels ago is a crappy feeling.
Schaefer suggests designers simply "manage the chaos", smoothing out the rough patches rather than flattening them:
A few levels deeper into the game, you might be struggling to find a replacement weapon, your skill combo won’t work as well against the new monster varieties and your pet will start to seem weaker. The multiple, overlapping systems and heavy randomness work to my benefit in this respect ... So all my spreadsheets and assumptions become less important as we finish development, and I concentrate on playing over and over again, getting tons of feedback, and ironing out the really crazy peaks and valleys. Fun always trumps balance.
This is only a small part of the interview -- Schaefer has a lot more to say about balance, as well as Runic's upcoming Torchlight 2 -- so hit the link below if you're keen.