WOTC introduced Backgrounds in PHB2, more than a year ago now. In that book, backgrounds were billed as a story element with only minor mechanical effects. Indeed, the mechanical benefits were limited to a piddling +2 to a skill or the ability to train in a cross-class skill – unarguably worse than a feat.
I assumed that the background benefits would inflate in the coming months, but they didn’t. New books are coming out all the time, introducing new backgrounds with new fluff, and all with the same small benefits applied to different combinations of skills. This shows restraint that I’m not used to seeing in D&D or in any frequently-updated game.
The only books that provide non-generic background benefits are campaign books: for instance, Forgotten Realms has location-specific background benefits that are often as good or better than most feats. This implies that non-trivial background benefits are tied to specific parts of a campaign world. This has kind of amazing implications. A DM using a homebrew world, who bans campaign-specific content, has implicit (though unfortunately not explicit) design space: player benefits that are
a) tied to parts of the DM’s campaign, which provides a convenient way to trick players into learning about its history and geography;
b) not in competition with WOTC-designed benefits, so the DM-created content won’t be ignored by players cherrypicking the best mechanics from all the books; and
c) created by the DM, so they can be designed for specific characters that the DM or players would like to see.
PHB3 isn’t out yet; I hope this trend continues, and, if it’s intentional, I hope it’s made official at some point so every DM can start creating their own homegrown backgrounds.