4E was balanced incredibly well when compared to the other systems. In the next iteration of D&D, will balance be as important or will we see some classes being noticeably more powerful than others again?
One of the best things that 4E did for us as designers was that it taught us a lot about game balance. Taking what we've learned over the course of 4E's design, development, and evolution, we can apply those lessons about game balance to the next iteration of D&D. In many ways, one of 4E's biggest contributions was putting new tools in our toolboxes for designing and developing the game—tools that weren't there before. More than that, we've learned how to apply that balance in different ways, allowing us to simply do more than we could before while still remaining balanced.
In my mind, game balance is not about symmetry, but about validating choices. Players want to feel like their choices have value, and especially in a cooperative game it's important to avoid traps that make players feel like they've made a "wrong" choice. Making a different choice, however, is vital. One of the things 4E does well is providing choices that, while not 100% equal, are equally valid, and reflect the play style of the player making choices. As the game evolved, we've found new ways to provide different—but still valid—choices for players looking for something that stands out more, or for something that better fits their play style. We want to take the things we've learned through that process and then apply that to the design of the next iteration of the game.
Balance is in the eye of the beholder. It's a good tool and a valuable thing to have in the game, but it can't come at the price of making the game feel bland or dull. One of the big reasons for our playtest is to ensure that as we balance the system, we attain the right kind of balance, not simply balance as we expect it or balance based purely on numbers.
The other thing about balance is that it should be a tool, and not a handcuff. There are certain things about D&D that are intrinsic properties of the game, things that are a part of D&D because they are D&D. In the process of making the next iteration of the game, we're going to focus on taking all of those intrinsic elements of the game and making the best game possible that includes all of those elements, as they should be. We use the game balance tool to then make sure that we're providing a satisfying experience using all of those elements. To address the specific example in your question, we'll want to make every attempt to make sure that choosing one class or another is still a valid choice, so I would say that class balance is an important thing that we'll be working on.Lets look at the pieces I bolded in order:
"In many ways, one of 4E's biggest contributions was putting new tools in our toolboxes for designing and developing the game—tools that weren't there before. "
I thought one of 4E's biggest contributions was giving us Pathfinder as an alternative - but I digress. ;) I'm going to assume this includes some or all of the following: at will powers, encounter powers, mooks and bosses, equalized progression of "to hit" / "spell penetration" / whatever your class uses to cause damage to the bad guys.
"In my mind, game balance is not about symmetry, but about validating choices."
Alright, this looks to be a step away from 4E, at least in character design. All classes being pretty much equally effective in combat encounters (flavor may differ) and challenges. Does this mean some classes may be more effective in combat encounters and others may be more effective in non-combat situations? I don't know, but that does seem to be a step away from 4E.
"Balance is in the eye of the beholder. It's a good tool and a valuable thing to have in the game, but it can't come at the price of making the game feel bland or dull. "
This is a slap at 4E. Balance is the big draw (or push away) for 4E. Balanced classes, balanced encounters. When is balance not good? When it isn't as much fun as not being balanced. I never got into the 4E rules as they seemed bland to me, despite the flavor on all the powers.
The other thing about balance is that it should be a tool, and not a handcuff. There are certain things about D&D that are intrinsic properties of the game, things that are a part of D&D because they are D&D.
What would these things be? My guesses (from my play experience and prejudices): random stat generation, random Hit Points at each level, random weapon damage - do you notice a theme here? Randomness - which can be balanced overall, but at the same time is unbalancing. Vancian magic, spells per level, core races (dwarves, elves, halflings, humans and yes - gnomes). Races don't need to be 100% balanced in combat, so long as the non combat bonuses give them an edge in those situations.
Of course, the other biggies at the six stats (comeliness can stay away), levels and classes.
It appears that advancements from 4E are the tools that will bring this package together. How? I have no friggin' idea, as I see 0e thru 3.5e as an evolution, and 4e as a divergence that has little left of it's roots. I might be wrong on that assessment (and I'm sure fans of 4E don't see it as I do), but our opinions aren't the concern. It's how Monte and the rest of the designers feel.
Monte did 3e, then followed with his own redo with Arcana Unearthed (edit: and later Unearthed Arcana - he's rewritten the rules TWICE already) He's a solid 3e guy. 4e is NOT his child. It will be interesting to see how his new design progresses.