I have a confession to make: There are five jewelcrafting mounts and one engineering mount that were introduced with Mists of Pandaria, and I have yet to make any of them. I have a tailor at max level tailoring, but she hasn't made a single Royal Satchel. I have a leatherworker who hasn't even touched any of the patterns introduced this expansion. In fact, the only things I seem to be making with any kind of regularity are cut gems, and glyphs for my alts.
Why? Because the return on investment for any one of the mounts introduced is too low. I don't have the gold to randomly fling at things like mounts that will be used once or twice and then forgotten about. As for the tailor, the pattern for the Royal Satchel is locked behind the absolute, hands down, worst reputation grind in the new expansion -- and there's no way to get around that. I either have to log on every single day to grind out dailies that give an absolute pittance of reputation, or try to solo Warbringers, which is next-to-impossible for several classes.
In short, none of these things are worth my time or gold. As a result, the majority of my professions have been completely unused for the majority of the expansion. And I have a sneaking suspicion I am far from the only one, here.
The importance of professions
Every expansion without fail, I level my character's professions as I level them through whatever new content is available. On my main this becomes incredibly useful, because gems for new gear are something I always need, especially since new gear is replaced relatively quickly as new patches and new content are released. And every expansion without fail, that flurry of activity comes to a complete standstill at some point in the waning months of the expansion, when I begin capping out my gear before a new expansion begins.
I've tried a variety of professions over the years, and jewelcrafting seems to have stuck as the most useful out of all of them. Not because it's particularly exciting, but because the end product from that profession is something I almost always need with regularity. Engineering, on the other hand ... that's more for fun. I have to tell myself it's more for fun, because after I've made the few useful things I could make at the onset of an expansion, like a trinket or goggles, there is little I actually use the profession for. I have a Blingtron, which I happily summon every day in the hopes of good gifts -- but the only thing I really use engineering for is the occasional tinker when I get a new pair of gloves, a belt, or a cloak.
Tailoring is just as useless. Certainly I can make cloth gear -- but that cloth gear has been all but eliminated as a useful item these days. A quick jaunt to the Timeless Isle will get you through any ilvl barriers between you and LFR content, and the tailoring patterns just don't make up the difference anymore. Inscription is slightly more useful, because new characters still need to learn glyphs as they level along -- but once those glyphs are learned, there's little you can do unless you feel like playing the auction house market and trying your hand against people that are experts at selling things for profit.
Useful vs. necessary vs. fun
There's a peculiar balance going on in professions -- usefulness, necessity and fun. An item like a mount can be fun without being a necessity, a item like a gem can be a necessity for optimizing gear without being particularly fun, and an item like an enchantment is something often considered a necessity for players in PvE content. Unfortunately, that trifecta of balance is almost always in flux. Items that could be filed under the useful category at the onset of an expansion quickly fall out of that category as the expansion moves on. Items like gems are one of those things that are a necessity that remains a necessity -- glyphs, on the other hand, fall out of that category the moment you use them, because you only need learn them once per character. Items that are fun, like mounts, are usually incredibly costly, and take time to craft.
That balance is thrown even further out of whack when items that are incredibly useful, like that Royal Satchel mentioned earlier, are so punishing to create when it comes to materials, not to mention obtaining the recipe itself, that the struggle of getting that recipe or making that item eclipses whatever usefulness that item might actually have. Mounts are always fun -- but when it takes a solid month to make them, as well as several thousand gold worth of materials, that fun tends to quickly evaporate. In my case, that meant I took jewelcrafting -- the most necessary of professions to my mind, because it would constantly feed me something I could actually use. It's not fun, it's not exciting, but at least it has something I can use, right?
Here's the thing: we still don't quite know, after ten years of this game being out, what niche professions are supposed to fill. Are they supposed to be fun? Grinding out daily cooldowns to try and learn recipes that are useful isn't really fun at all. Are they supposed to be useful? Most professions lose their usefulness outside of one or two items within the first three, four months of an expansion cycle. Are they supposed to be necessary? Glyphs are automatically cataloged once you learn them, immediately losing their necessity once they have been learned. Should they be a source of income? Most items made by professions aren't really needed, by the time they've been crafted and posted on the auction house, there are a ton of better options available just from hopping in LFR and rolling the dice.
Where, exactly, in this game, do professions really fit?
Finding the balance
I think it's something that needs to be addressed, or at the very least given a long, careful look. Each expansion has had a new trick for various professions. Daily quests tailored to individual professions in exchange for tokens that can then be exchanged for recipes, daily cooldowns of items that lead to automatic discovery of random recipes, or just fun little items like cogwheels that boost stats for approximately one half of a raid tier before losing all usefulness. And each expansion, without fail, these new and innovative toys are exciting for a month or two, at the most.
How do you solve this problem? How do you make professions viable? Realistically, if you want a separation between raiding and the rest of the game, you can't just slap raid-quality crafted gear on that recipe list. We've seen several buffs to professions over the expansion, but they by and large have involved making it easier to actually level the profession itself, as with mining, herbalism and cooking -- these methods have made it easier to get to max level of a profession, but do little to address the big issue: How do you make professions useful throughout the whole of an expansion's cycle, instead of just those first few months? How do you keep them an engaging and fun experience?
Honestly, at this point, what seems to be popular among players isn't crafted gear or boosts to stats -- it's cosmetic, fun stuff. The glyphs introduced on the Timeless Isle are all by and large cosmetic enhancements, fun little side things that aren't really tied to raiding, PvP, or breaking DPS records. In the balance between necessity, usefulness and fun, they clearly land in the fun side of the spectrum -- and they aren't that hard to obtain. A few hours killing mobs on the Timeless Isle for daily or weekly quests will net you several different glyphs -- a far better option than the mind-numbing grind for reputation just to get the pattern for a bag.
While that's all well and good for scribes, what about the tailors, the leatherworkers, the blacksmiths? Why not introduce something along the same lines for those professions as well -- fun, cosmetic items they can craft and create? Transmogrification has been a giant success ever since it was introduced -- why not toss some purely-cosmetic patterns in the mix for these professions? They wouldn't be useful, they wouldn't be necessary, but they'd be fun -- and given the way that transmogrification has taken off, these kind of items would always be in demand.
As for actually learning the patterns, of all of the different ways we've seen for patterns to be introduced, I have to say my favorite by far is simple farming like we've seen on the Timeless Isle. Killing mobs isn't that much of a chore, and it makes up a giant chunk of what we do in game already. There isn't an arbitrary time obligation involved, which is half of what makes grinding out those profession recipes so utterly frustrating -- players that want to obtain recipes as it stands feel obligated to log in at least once a day to do the obligatory profession cooldown and learn a random recipe they have no influence over deciding.
Time constraints are automatically frustrating, as is reputation gating -- particularly when it comes to alts and learning professions on those alts. A reputation grind may be interesting the first time though, but it becomes considerably less interesting the more times you have to complete it. Yet when recipes are not BoA or BoE, players are forced to do those reputation grinds on alts if they want the recipes offered. As for materials and cost, I think that balance between cost and reward needs to be re-examined -- paying out the nose for a crafting item feels punishing to players that don't have the time to grind out a small fortune in gold.
It's not that professions are inherently bad. They aren't bad, and each profession offers something unique to a player, making the choice between taking professions an interesting one. It's that this one small aspect of the game -- professions -- doesn't really feel like a challenge or a delight so much as a slog, one with very little reward at the end. At the moment, that reward is barely worth the time it takes to grind the profession out. We do it out of necessity, because we feel we need those personal perks at the end of the grind -- we don't do it because it's fun. And in the end, I'd much rather be spending my time on fun. That's what playing a game is supposed to be about, isn't it?