The new World of Warcraft expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, has been announced, and like The Burning Crusade the level cap will be increased another ten levels. This means that tradeskills will be increased, because no one will want to craft level 70 items at level 80. I imagine that this will also mean that there will be the same problem with tradeskills, specifically the crafting skills, as there was when BC was released, and remains to this day: crafting to the skill cap is expensive and difficult. This may not be a problem in and of itself, as a good argument can be made that crafting to the skill cap should be expensive and difficult in order to access the best craftable items, the problem comes specifically with the introduction of an expansion that increases the level of the skill cap.
Note that this article will be written from the point of view of the blacksmithing skill, as it is the one I am most familiar with. I imagine the situation is the same for other crafting skills, but if it isn't feel free to file a lawsuit.
Before The Burning Crusade, the maximum skill level was 300, and crafting items to get to 300 takes many expensive and hard-to-get resources. With the introduction of BC the tradeskills were extended, and the new maximum skill level became 375. Crafting items to get to 375 takes even more expensive and hard-to-get resources. But before you can start getting up to 375 you need to get to 300, and the work required to get to 300 remains as gruelling as it did before the expansion was released, even though the items crafted are surpassed when skill level 301 is reached and the first, mundane, vendor-trash items are crafted with the new, expansion-only resources. In effect, there is a 'skill bump', an artificial complication that remains only as an artefact of a previous era and now serving no purpose.
The announcement of the new expansion fills me with dread that the same situation will carry over from Burning Crusade to Wrath of the Lich King. The 375 skill cap will require acquiring and spending vast amounts of resources to create items that serve no other purpose than allowing a player to get to skill 376 and start making more vendor trash on the way to the new skill cap. Obviously, this presents no problem for players who reach the skill cap ahead of time, but for the more casual gamer, or the altaholic, reaching the skill cap can be too much of a pointless grind. Unfortunately, in order to craft anything from the expansion it becomes a necessary grind, even after all the current patterns become surpassed by the first green drop you get in the new area. There are solutions.
Solution 1: make the previously hard-to-get resource bountiful in the new zones, and keep the first batch of new patterns based on this resource.
To get to skill 300 in blacksmithing requires thorium, and lots of it. Thorium ore is hard to find in anything but small amounts, making skilling up a frustrating process. The first new ore in Burning Crusade was fel iron, and it was sprinkled around Hellfire Peninsula like demon poo, making the first new patterns easy to make. Instead, it would have made good sense to have Hellfire Peninsula covered in thorium veins, so that anyone not at skill 300 could have skilled up more quickly and without having to spend valuable time in Azeroth instead of Outlands. This also would have prevented people from stockpiling thorium to sell at inflated prices in the auction houses once most people stopped adventuring in Azeroth and thus stopped mining it.
Even so, the patterns require so much ore that each vein would have to give ten or more ores for this to be feasible, and the same is true of adamantite even if the first new zone turns out to have plentiful supplies of that. Of course, it would be nice if one act of mining extracted all the ore from the vein in the same way that all herbs are plucked at once, or all leather is skinned at once, but that's a different issue. This would reduce the artificial scarcity of the resource, but it would still require a grind.
Solution 2: make patterns available in the expansion that use the new resources at lower skill levels than the current skill cap.
For example, when Burning Crusade was released it would have been possible to have patterns available to learn at skill level 250 or 275 that used fel iron. The craftable items could still have a level requirement of 60, so that the items would not be overpowered on the character, and would be trainable only in an Outlands zone, so that the expansion would be required to craft them and thus gain skill points in their crafting. This would mean that players could adventure and progress their characters in the new zones, gaining new resources, and still progress their crafting skill. All of the old, scarce-resource-hungry items, designed only to make skilling to the cap difficult, would not need to be made, which would not be a problem because more powerful items are dropped regularly by mobs in the new zones anyway. The skill bump would be negated.
Solution 3: overhaul the crafting system to allow for a two-tier system, letting players create 'solo' or 'team' items at all skill levels.
Craftable items can be made that are equivalent to world drops for 'solo' items, or equivalent to boss drops in instances for 'team' items. The solo items would require fewer resources, and those attainable from solo questing in world zones, but they would be primarily green items. They would offer upgrades from world drops in the sense that world drops are random and the craftable items could be identified as useful before being made, which would give some purpose above skilling up. Team items would require more resources, and resources only available from instances, nominally like spirit shards where every eligible player can loot the item and the item is bind-on-pickup. The resultant crafted items would be higher-quality items that are more equivalent to instance loot than world drops. The idea is that players who enjoy solo content and those who prefer to run instances would both be able to craft equipment that is suitable for their playing style, whilst the solo path simultaneously allows for quicker skill levelling that would be beneficial on the release of an expansion when the craftable items are surpassed by new world drops.
The problem of fast skill levelling with this solution, where players could reach level caps quickly and start crafting the best items, could be solved by making the best items more resource hungry than they are now, thus requiring a larger committment to the craft to allow for the items' high quality. This solution would need an overhaul to the skill system, so is more difficult to implement.
Personally, I would like to see solution 2 implemented in Wrath of the Lich King. Without it, it will be a tedious and expensive slog to get to a point where I can once again start making vendor trash, which shows the skill system as obviously broken across expansion transitions. Players should be given the option of skipping past crafting the horribly difficult to make items once an expansion is released that to a large extent nullifies their worth, and players should be encouraged to explore and adventure in the new zones instead of scurrying around the old ones in search of mineral deposits. Without a workable solution to the skill bump the initial time in the new zones will be marred as it was, and is, in BC by being forced to spend a disproportionate amount of time getting those last 10 to 15 skill points needed before progress can be made in the expansion.