The shortcoming of classes I complained about–as did those with whom I played–in the Way Back had more to do with a lack of variety. I met some guys who’d implemented kits that worked to set apart members of classes, based on culture and so forth; other folks used other ways to add variety to the basic classes.
So we picked up games that lacked character classes…and ran into other problems. Traveller had its life path system, which was cool. It created characters with believable skillsets, though the character could died before finishing chargen. That was a nice approach that worked, while others didn’t.
GURPS characters, for example, could end up severely unbelievable. When thinking of fantasy settings–distinctly lacking junior colleges where folks could pop in for course on a variety of topics–a character that was created with a smattering of skills each from a variety of fields just wasn’t believable. No, it just doesn’t work to claim that your character somehow got apprenticed/trained to be a gladiator AND ninja AND magician…
Templates appeared as a way to make for reasonable starting characters that could then develop along different lines so that experienced characters showed a great variety, even after having begun in similar fashion. That was a very nice approach to character generation and development that I find appealing.
Indeed, I use character classes in my designs, though they’re actually templates. Players begin with a pretty standard set of skills and abilities (although there is some variation built in with secondary skill choices). How the characters then develop allows for a great more variety, so a mercenary soldier can slowly transform into an accomplished spy, for example.
That approach also reins in the “gladiator/ninja/wizard” circus sideshow characters that ruin any sense of setting for me. It would require a great deal of play for a character to develop such a wide-ranging skillset, plus the character’s ability with each skillset is going to be limited.