What is a Good Reward?
In my opinion, there are two things that can make a reward valuable: Utility and Rarity.
Utility: Isn't a reward better if it makes life a little easier. I leveled the Ardent Crusade and all of my faction reps to exalted purely to get the squire who could check my mail and look at my bank. It same saves me time, and possibly my raids time if I forget something in my bank. In fact I no longer carry my Shadow Resist gear around on the off chance we do ToGC. If I need it I can quickly pull it out of the bank.
That said, utility can be a slippery slope. If you make the reward to powerful it goes from being a reward to being a need, and many people will feel compelled to do the task just for the reward.
Rarity: There is a reason why Kungen from Ensidia still wears the Scarab Lord title. It is the rarest of all titles. It represents a significant achievement from Vanilla WoW. Only a few hundred people in the world got the title, and even the people who cheezed it on new realms had to put in a lot of time to get it. A very rare reward gives the player a way to display their accomplishment. Not only that it signals to other players and guilds your quality and may help you get in a guild or a pug group.
The Current Rewards:
Gear: When I made my comment two weeks ago that Heroic raiders should get first crack at the new content several commenters said that Heroic Gear should be enough of a reward for doing Heroic content. I disagree completely.
There are several big issues as to why Gear should not be seen as a reward. The first being utility. Gear is the primary example of a reward having to much utility. Gevlon has proven with his undergeared project that you don't have to have the best gear to progress, but I think even he would agree that it makes it a lot easier. Gear in the long run reduces the skill needed to complete content and I have been in raids where the GM calls it because we don't have the gear to complete the content even though we had better gear then the people go completed it before attunements were lifted.
Gear is just to powerful. If it is handed out only as a reward for an accomplishment it creates large barriers for entry. This is what caused the big shift in Blizzard gear philosophy in TBC when they let BT level gear be purchase able with badges and had Kara level gear drop from 5man instances. In WotLK, Blizzard has made gear even more available, and this leads me to the second reason why gear is a bad reward.
Gear is to easy to obtain to be a significant reward. In a matter of weeks a player can get a full set of T9 gear gear with out ever setting foot into a raid instance. It is theoretically possible for someone to do the same with T10 gear. Given how accessible the normal mode of ICC is a new player can have a very good set of gear in just a few months. Progression raiders will have slightly better gear, but the performance advantage is small and it looks the same as it's lower level equivalent.
Titles: Titles can be a very good reward. As I mentioned above the Scarab Lord title is still highly valued and I have been very proud of several titles over the course of WotLK. The problem with titles though is that they aren't removed from the game. My proudest achievement from WotLK so far is completing Immortal and therefore the T7 meta achievement before Ulduar was released. The Immortal title is still pretty rare, but that is due more to a lack of effort then any great barrier. Any group with half a brain, some preparation and ICC level gear could get Immortal now with a little effort. The same goes for the Sarth 3D titles. Both were very significant in T7, now there are tons of alts picking them up when ever Sarth becomes the weekly quest.
So, titles do have significant value at least temporarily, but most lose their value after it is possible for players to over power the content. There is a reason that the server first titles are so popular, and there is a reason why I still where the Ardent Defender title. I won't claim that my accomplishment is as big as a 10man strict guild getting it, but it does show that I completed some very hard content at the appropriate gear level.
Very Fast Mounts (310%): If you had asked me a year ago, I would have told you these were the perfect reward. I feel for the guilds that were not able to complete the T7 meta in time, but no one can deny that the Black Proto-drakes show that you beat the T7 content in level appropriate gear. In addition to representing a significant accomplishment, they also allowed you to get places a little faster and that is huge for an impatient person like me.
Unfortunately, Blizzard has allowed these rewards to lose their significance and in Cataclysm Blizzard will be taking away the utility completely. Call me a hypocrite if you like. I know that I got my Ironbound Proto-drake after ToC was released, but the fact that they are still available a year after Ulduar's release has made them nothing more then a pretty picture. With ICC gear pugs are able to over power all of the content with a little prep and organization.
Not only that, but Blizzard said this in the Twitter Developer chat a few weeks ago:
Our current plan, is that in Cataclysm, you can learn a new rank of flying that lets all flying mounts move at 310% (even current 280% mounts). That will probably be as fast as mounts will ever get. We don’t like it that when you get a 310% mount that you stop using your old ones. (src)This could mean one of two things.
1. When you complete a meta achievement you get a "Tome of Very Fast Flying" that increases your riding skill to 525 and allows all of your flying mounts to go a 310% speed.
2. The 310% flying speed will be purchasable with gold like the other levels of riding skill.
I really hope that it is the first. If it's the second, then Blizzard has just taken the best part about the meta rewards and given them to everyone with time.
I can hear the groans now, and I'm sure I will turn off a few more readers my supposed Elitism. However, I think accomplishment should be rewarded and I like to be recognized for my accomplishments. Unfortunately Blizzard has taken steps to undermine those rewards in WotLK.
Gear is tool and should not be seen as a reward by anyone. Otherwise it would have to little value or create a huge barrier to entry and prevent people from accessing content. Titles work well as reward temporarily, but ultimately lose their value due to people being able to over power the content. Mounts much like titles made a great reward in the beginning, but now are losing their value because over geared players can complete the meta achievements just a little thought and planning.