I have had a moment of insight where, if I was in a bath tub, I would have hopped out naked and started yelling in the streets.
I have been wracking by brain on how do allow a player to control the growth of their character. I want the different paths of development to unlock improved abilities and special perks. And yet I want to keep the game simple enough that it is fun for a general audience.
The problem is a thorny one because many of what people think of as single skills actually require development across many different parts of the brain. Simplify the model too much and there is either no room for development, or no control over what happens when it does. Make it too complicated and nobody will be able to figure out how to play. Let us take the "simple" case of Charisma.
Given how much convincing and conniving the player's character is going to have to do, what other games call "Charisma" is going to be super-important in this games. But Charisma isn't just one thing. One has to be perceptive. One has to be sympathetic. One has to have a force of personality. Each of these abilities are developed in a different regions of the Psyche. And in fact, all of these regions generally feud with one another.
The answer I have come up with is this: I don't give the player controls for brain development at all. Instead, I will treat that complex network I came up with as just that: a complex network. As the player tries to perform certain acts, success in that act will strengthen all of the areas in the character's Psyche that were involved, as well as the communication pathways between those areas. I can provide the player some visual feedback, but really a player can just know that if the adopt a style, answer challenges with that style, and stick with that style, they will get better and better at it.
Conversely, if a player tries to be good at everything, they will end up half-assed in everything. Except... of course, that being half-assed at everything can be a superpower when most people are terrible at at least one thing. I'm also picturing that moment from the Karate Kid where Daniel confronts Mr. Miyagi about the seemingly pointless chores he has been doing. And then learns that he has been honing his mind and body in ways that were completely invisible from the surface.
Another breakthrough is that I have a general outline of how the story will play out.
The story begins with your character being introduced to the ship. A guidance counselor NPC will help them select a starting vocation and a goal, based on the player's preferences. The game will provide tools to help the player steer his or her character's personal development towards that goal. As the player progresses through the game, he or she can changes those goals, or exploit other opportunities as they present themselves. The game ends when the player says it ends. Or if some event kills the player's character.
When the game is over, the computer will run the rest of the mission. If the player is still alive, the AI will continue the part of the player, emulating the characteristics the player developed. The mission will have random challenges the ship has to overcome, and eventually the computer will produce an Epilogue to the story. That Epilogue will state whether the ship survived, if it accomplished its mission, and provide a quick rundown of the fates of the characters that the player interacted with.