City of Heroes did great things with scaling that other games are still struggling to adapt, but its character origins were a vestigial feature that never panned out. The early designs made origins important, but that did not translate to the final game.
City of Heroes used “origin” where another game might use “race,” just as it had “archetypes” instead of “classes.” You were a Science Blaster, not a Gnome Wizard. Race mattered a lot more in some early MMOs than it does today, to the point where you might delete a character if it had the “wrong” race for its class. It might have been just a 5% difference between best and worst, but think how much the average raider will grind for a 5% better anything.
Origin had almost entirely cosmetic effects. Origin affected which missions (quests) you were offered first and which shops you used for enhancements (equipment). In the early days, you might have favored one group of enemies over another because they dropped the enhancement type you needed, but money very quickly became trivial (seriously, people would just go to Atlas Park and hand out 999,999 influence to new characters) and everyone was expected to have bought the best shop enhancements. Origin had a few more small effects like which of the bonus items did marginally more damage, but in practice it only mattered if you really hated the enemy group that came with those early missions, and that level of hatred would have changed between game updates and then became more or less irrelevant a few hours into the game when you moved past the early missions.
I was serious about that “vestigial.” Origin was effectively designed out of the game, still obviously there on every character but without meaning or impact.
To get a sense of the early design for origins, you might look at some pen-and-paper superhero RPGs, from which the design was presumably cribbed. Each origin would have had a combination of how many abilities you were allowed and how good they could be. Perhaps magic heroes had the highest cap but were limited to one type of magic, while normal heroes could learn everything but could never be as strong as Thor, and mutant heroes fell somewhere in between, and maybe technology heroes had more equipment slots/options. Perhaps some powers were not options for some origins, like a magical Assault Rifle/Devices Blaster. Perhaps they learned things differently or at different rates, and science heroes could have “radiation accidents” and respec more easily.
You can see how some of those could become design issues.
- Some players eschew generalists, and a diverse group of magical one-trick ponies would have no use for a generalist. Balancing that would be interesting.
- Different learning rates have been a common feature of many games, such as D&D where 1st edition rogues leveled the fastest, Dragonlance black robed wizards leveled faster than white robes, and some 3rd edition multiclassing options slowed leveling. In an MMO, however, that upsets players during the leveling game and becomes irrelevant at the level cap. In an MMO, given enough time, everyone will be at the level cap, and adding an extra 100 hours to the leveling game only matters if you are intentionally creating a three-monther, and no one was intentionally creating three-monthers back then.
- In terms of the setting, does it even make sense to have different designs? There are characters with magical guns and gizmos. Spider-Man is pretty clearly a science hero, but different writers have also given him a technological spider suit and a magical spider totem. “Natural” includes aliens, because their abilities are perfectly natural for their species, so both Batman and Superman are natural heroes. What was that about a low-cap natural generalists?
The trend is for race to be less important. It defines some of the content you see but has little effect on your abilities. Despite starting in the opposite corner, City of Heroes as it shipped had a “race” design so trivial that it did not affect your cosmetic appearance options. City of Villains took this one step further by letting players pick their early contacts and lategame patrons, so origin did not even affect that.