Leading into Cataclysm and early in Cataclysm's wake, I read a few perspectives that essentially called Cataclysm the "golden age of alts." The idea was that if ever there was a time to start throwing yourself into playing other characters, this was the expansion to do it.
On the surface, that made sense. There were two new races (complete with their own starting areas), new heirlooms, guild perks to smooth out leveling and areas redesigned to streamline the questing experience. Even lower level dungeons had been redesigned to breathe new life into them.
How to resolve, then, that I went the other way? I was a pretty significant altaholic during my time in Wrath. After leveling my main up to 80 around October of 2009, I leveled four more characters up to 80 over the next year--a shaman, hunter, mage and priest (who became my main, relegating my original paladin to "alt" status, but that's neither here not there) in addition to a druid that languished at about level 72 due to the end-of-expansion blues. Beyond that, I dabbled in more characters of other classes, sometimes deleting them as high as level 50, 60 or 70 because I wanted to make something new. I played a lot of characters when I wasn't raiding on my main.
Now, however, I've become very alt-averse. While I've leveled up most of my level 80 characters to 85, it was in a more desultory manner. A might-as-well mindset rather than real interest. My priest is my main and my shaman could almost be thought of as a co-main. I raid on both of them a lot and as seriously as I can, which is how I define a "main" character. As for my other eight characters? I only play my rogue with any real interest and even then only to level it in a very casual, slow manner (it's 66 at the moment). So I could argue that, in practice, I only have one alt I'm interested in.
So, from my perspective, was Wrath the "golden age of alts?" Not exactly. That was going to be the thrust of my post, but when I began thinking it over, I realized the true root of why I played them so actively then and not now. And the answer didn't lie in the specific nature of the latest expansion of the time.
Fading Light Gleams Golden
The answer is that the final year of an expansion is easy money for an alt. With previous tier gear available for justice points (known as emblems of valor by that point in the previous expansion) and those points easy to farm in heroics that most people overgeared massively. With raid teams able to mount more alt runs and PUG raids available. With the top-of-the-line enchants and gems no longer new and their prices down. With all of these factors, it was quick and easy to get a fresh level 80 raid-geared and into raids within a couple of days, and without abdicating the other priorities in your life to do it.
Now, this is a very end-game-centric view. For me, the only real enjoyment to the game is end-game raiding with people I enjoy playing with (though I also can enjoy running dungeons with friends, but that is more for the social aspect rather than the game aspect). So the only thing that makes playing an alt attractive is raiding with a new class. Every moment of the leveling-up and gearing-up process is a zero from an enjoyment point of view. It's an effort investment to have fun once it's done. The fun at the end has to outweigh the time spent getting there, or else the books fail to balance.
In Wrath, with five fewer levels to acquire and raid-worthy gear so quick to pick up, the accounting finished easily in the black.
You Mean I Have To Earn It? No Deal, Man!
However, Cataclysm has changed the math significantly. There are, as noted, five extra levels to acquire (this is mitigated to some extent by the faster rate of xp gain possible and the lowering of the xp needed for levels 70-80). More importantly, the gearing-up process is far from trivial now. Reputation items matter (by the next tier, they won't, since they'll be outdated compared to justice point gear and dungeon drops) so pencil in four to six reputation grinds. Justice point farming involves running heroics that are still challenging, which ups both the play time and effort as well as the social cost (when dungeons are challenging, there's more adversity, which leads to more negative personalities expressing themselves). Gems are actually not very expensive at all, but the top-line enchants are almost prohibitively so unless you're excellent at earning gold (and even for those good at it, making a lot of gold has its own time cost). Raid teams, outside of the harder-core guilds, are still struggling with content and are not deploying as many alt raid teams. PUG raids are very uncommon for anything outside the toy raid of Baradin Hold.
So now I find that the time and effort necessary is no longer worth the payoff. It's going to take me longer and require more work to get an alt to acceptable levels of raid readiness and in the end, I may not even have a raid spot for that character. This is not a complaint, at all, just an observation as to why Cataclysm's advent hasn't resulted in a surge of interest in playing alts for me and, in fact, has had the opposite effect.
I do put in a lot of effort to keep my main(s) in top form for raids and in the actual raiding. I just don't want to apply that same level of effort over three or four or five or ten characters.
I'm sure that the final year of Cataclysm will be pretty nice for (my) alts, though! Perhaps even the next tier of content will provide the easy access to alt raiding that will make all the zero-gain (for me) time of leveling and gearing worthwhile. Once it's fairly quick to get multiple alts into raids, I'm so there!
Until then, my rogue will take the scenic route to the level cap and perhaps take some time off to bum around Europe and maybe acquire a classical liberal arts education.