Mining and refining - suggestions
Now that modding has received a rather massive update and everything is all over it, I would like to point out another system that is currently un-fun and may see some resurgence sooner or later: mining (and, by extension, refining). I bring this up because mod shipments do still cost resources that can only be gained by mining (or pirate refineries, but I will disregard those here as not everyone can get all the resources they need by raiding pirate installations, and some might just not want to risk open PVP), so chances are more people are going to be looking into mining either for their own resource demands, or mining in order to sell to modders looking to get shipments. Also please, before you start stating "mining does not make money": we are not even at that point yet. I am talking about the very act of getting from a rock unproductively floating in space to refined resources sitting around in a cargo bay somewhere waiting to become part of a death machine.
Let's start with rock mining. Many people do that in their interceptors/corvettes/destroyers, as those are nimble, and have an easy time with it. That is fine, but I dare say that a single asteroid per trip does not quite make you the most efficient miner out there, and still leaves a lot to be desired in terms of output. The "professional" miner goes for a freighter or superhauler, with the ablity to carry four or seven asteroids respectively (HELP file says eight, but the eigth one seems to get lost more or less all the time, so I always use a scoop instead, works fine). The latter are not entirely fun to fly, but bringing in seven asteroids and full scoops or even double scoops makes you FEEL productive as hell. However, this is where the first issue comes in - each resource must be turned in at a corresponding refinery, and if you have several different asteroids tethered up, you are subject to Lady Luck's cruel judgement as to which asteroid is first to be queued up. This gets particularly annoying if you want to make use of the bonuses for the more demanded resources, like titanium, which only gets a bonus in some backwater stations that usually only hold refineries for one or two types of material. If you show up at the titanium refinery with several different asteroids in tow, and the one the game wants to queue up does not happen to be the titanium asteroid you found, but, say, vandium, you're out of luck and get to travel all the way to a place that -has- a vandium refinery, turn that in, then go back to the titanium refinery and try your luck again, forcing you to do two rather pointless and boring trips for up to 20% extra yield. Alternatively, you could release the asteroid, and retether it, but that means you're losing a lot of time and essentially wasting another tether, so that's definitely not a desirable solution either. Only picking up titanium asteroids is also hardly viable if you just want to get some resources, especially since hyperscan is still useless once you have tethered one asteroid with your desired resource, as Sherlock Hyperscan will diligently and somewhat correctly point out that the closest source of your desired resource is still right behind you.
Gas mining has a similar problem once you have gained secondary scoops - let's say you want to mine iriil, and find a nice cloud of tritium on the way as well, which you scoop (or just accidentally fly through, as a hauler maneuvers like a wall). You could now head to the iriil refinery, queue up the iriil and dump the tritium, which would be a waste, or not use the secondary scoops at all, which is not quite the point, or turn in the iriil, then fly your tritium to a different refinery, and then return to iriil mining.
So... how to solve this? One option would be to let the hard cap of three refineries per player die, and allow people to earn more refinery slots by refining raw materials. This would (very) slowly give people more opportunities for refinery building, however this may take a very long time to be viable, and refineries are still far from profitable, so opening a refinery at a backwater station just to make life easier for miners would still not make too much sense in terms of return on investment.
Another, more immediate way to sort this would be to open up an NPC refinery in certain stations, which would "buy" the asteroids (and scoops) you don't want for a somewhat decent price, but would keep the resources, so you could basically "dump" your stesium asteroid for money there immediately. This would still leave you out of luck if you actually -wanted- that stesium (or whatever). The third, and often suggested option here would be to introduce ship board refineries, which would only fit on the big, "economy" ships such as the freighter and the superhauler, giving you the choice to either process the asteroid right on board or have it done somewher else, potentially giving you the bonus. My suggestion here would be to give this a separate order, for example SHIP REFINE ASTEROID (allow to specify the ID here!), which would reel in a tethered asteroid (potentially making the tether reusable...) and move it to your cargo hold as "raw (material)", which would then gradually be turned into the refined stuff. This may warrant having a close look at the refining times again, as otherwise a good mining trip would clog up your shipboard refinery for up to a week, or just act as a "quick" way to dispose of an asteroid you're not too interested in, but may want to take in for daily credits. The refining cost should be the base line cost for that material, maybe a little higher as you're doing it literally on the fly. Since you would be pretty much the only person having access to your ship refineries, those should not count towards your refinery limit. Your specialisations would affect those as they would refining on a station in terms of cost and time, meaning no changes to the specialisation mechanics would be required in my opinion.
(edit: could even make them faction owned refineries, paying a set amount per raw material, and refining straight into the faction stores).
You could also only go half way - make tethers/scoops not attach the material to the ship, but take the raw stuff right into the cargo (so an asteroid containing 19 units of raw astrium would become 19 cargo units of "raw astrium"), and change the refinery syntax to "refinery (id) queue 10 (material)", which should also just take the payment as a lump sum and tell you when it is done (reducing the marks spam in the process), taking any potential jobs queued up before yours into account. This would still leave smaller ships with a rather slim capacity for mining, as they don't tend to have much cargo capacity to go around even without the supplies you'd need for an incursion, however, battleships would still be mining beasts as well. The suggestion would be to either add a "raw material storage" cargo that is entirely dependent on the ship class (say interceptor gets 30 units of raw material cargo, corvette 60, destroyer 100 and so on, or just leave the cargo as is, considering even freighters seem to have a rather substantial capacity as well for minimal cost. In light of that, I would suggest making scooped gas "compressed gas" in the cargo hold, so 4 units of scooped gas would become 1 unit of compressed gas in your cargo, each could then be turned into 1 unit of refined gas in the refinery. Alternatively, make the asteroid crusher and gas compressor medium modules (either one or two) with a very small energy consumption, or make the power output of the economy ships big enough to maintain all ship components, tractor beam and those potential new ship modules (tractor beams are necessary to make mining not entirely awful in those ships), giving players the full amount of choice whether they want to haul asteroids the old fashioned way, or grind them up into nice chunks in their cargo hold, then turn them in at the refinery. As an added bonus, speaking of RL experience, the pre-ground resources may even be processed a little faster at the refinery. (edit: the mining specialisation giving you 10% extra would come in when you grind up/compress the resource, giving you 10% more of the raw stuff in your cargo hold)
In all honesty though, I'd be fine with the old tethering/scooping as is going the way of the dinosaurs, and making mining a little less of a chore. It is already 90% flying around alone in space, there's no reason to make it worse than it needs to be.
And, as usual, my apologies for the massive wall of text.
I think freighters should be cheap (and more nimble? What are they like to fly?). Equivalent to a corvette (a middle of the road corvette perhaps). The downside to them is not having weapons - but that should both offset the mass and cost. They could perhaps get cheaper access to voidgates as well.
Let's not forget that firefly was a freighter.
Re: the wall of textI do feel that some of the issues you describe could be easily fixed. Like being able to choose which asteroid you want to refine in the syntax. I also like the idea of the superhauler being a refinery ship. I'm not sure I like the idea of the freighter being the same, though.
Alternate idea #1:
Remove refining from the specialties we choose, so that all refineries are equal and everyone can set them up with the bonuses as though they were specialised. People will then choose between mining vs manufacturing. Currently the only reason to spec refining is if you're not interested in ship economy stuff but want to help your faction/friends out. You'll never recoup the cost of that help either.
Alternate idea #2
Refining is NPC driven at the stations, and removed from the player part entirely. After all, if no player is making money from refining and it's not fun, why have it at all? (Reason: seems 'real' to have to refine stuff, so in that case just make it NPC driven)
Alternate idea #3
Go with #1 but reduce the cost of refineries to 5K in remote locations, 10K in major.
Re: freighters - please. They're handle like absolute shit and imo there's no balance reason for that since, as stated, they can't even hold weapons. Harvest drones and a tractor beam are practically mandatory for them to be useful because of their absurd turn speeds.
I don't have feelings on ship-board refineries either way. I don't see them as particularly necessarily at all, but I also don't see a real reason to oppose them. Again, as stated above, the ability to REFINERY <#> QUEUE <ASTEROID#> would be hugely beneficial. I never refine away from factional states because it would be so out of the way to find out I need to go somewhere else to drop off the 'next' asteroid I have.
On the issue of removing refining from specialties you may have to reimburse the players who chose that option, or at least give them a free respec.
Someone that is heavily into ship economy stuff is spending a lot of time flying around. That is, a lot of their game time is slow and cumbersome if flying a freighter, when instead their play style should be fun.
Also, smuggling missions when?
Doing this would blur the lines between a dedicated combat class vessel, and a dedicated mining class vessel, which is bad in my opinion. The way things are going right now, we are trending towards a clear differentiation between the two space activities, which is good.
If every class of ship was capable in a larger capacity based off their relative masses of better asteroid mining, you go from a "two occupation based on ship class" system, to one of gradual improvement from class to class. Which is fine on paper but ultimately predictable and boring, why stay at a lesser class of ship when the next one is superior in every way (Yes, I'm aware this is rather hilarious coming from the ex-interceptor fanboy). If a destroyer class can haul more than a single asteroid, there's no point to the freighter or superhaulers beyond drone capacity, and the higher asteroid towing capacity. You lose alot of the uniqueness to each class of ship if each one is just an outright improvement over what you had before. Granted, yes, for the most part right now that's basically Starmourn's ship progression tree in a nutshell. But this change would undo alot of what has been done so far, even if what has happened is not that significant in the grand scheme of things for some people.
Everyone will just take the ship that can have the most guns, and make do with the limited mining capacity with destroyers and cruisers hauling more than just one asteroid because mining isn't really that profitable anyway right now. This will eventually lead to no one really flying anything other than the max class ship, even if the freighters and hauler types could haul more rocks. It boils down to an arms race, and you'll essentially get people who just don't bother doing any serious space stuff until they're maxed out as they won't be having as much of a yield as compared to other spacers in higher classes.
This'd probably tank the economy more than it would help it, too.
If we were to go this route, I would much rather it was that your ship's capabilities were tied more to the modules you have installed rather than the class of ship you were using. I think this might be the plan, as removing the small/medium/large slot method of outfitting your ship went a long way towards just having some modules in storage to swap out as needed. To go even further on this, I'd rather your ship's class was tied to the amount of power your ship was producing and/or using. Sure you have an interceptor-class frame, but you've got an output rating that puts you on par with some destroyer class vessels, so that means you're a destroyer class. Your captaincy level now represents how much system complexity you can handle, not the mass of the ship you can drive.
(Insert a "it's not the size, it's how you use it" joke here)