Non-combat gameplay - I think it is very important to provide a lot of interesting non-combat gameplay opportunities as well. One important aspect would be in my opinion is problem solving with ships: either by flying, maneuvering or proper management of resources and equipment. There are several tropes we could start off from, and especially to elaborate and improve upon them:
Deliveries - could be more involved, with orbital rendez-vous and external docking, last minute reroutes, multi leg deliveries, "delivery and bring back" missions, etc.
SAR missions are great. External docking would add quite a lot to them, especially if the target is rotating due to RCS failure. Spontaneous distress calls would also be nice, either with payment or just reputation increase. Some places could even make responding to them mandatory (which could affect nearby NPC ships too). These could also be traps. There cold also be SAR missions in difficult terrain (asteroid belts, complex structures, etc)
Expeditions to unexplored systems - larger multi-leg missions with several types of sub-tasks, like surveys, resupply, couriering and such. Large player ship with subcrafts and management/overview interface could be interesting for this.
and I had an idea that a way to provide an "exploration" game-loop is for the player to sign up with an exploration company as a "planetary exploration agent" - they get ferried around between systems by docking with a megaship and are employed to fly down to the surface of planets and perform some task
I think that might solve some of the issues with both the monotony and logistics of exploration - you have an actual reason to "explore" and it's accessible to players who haven't ground their way to a large ship that is capable of years-long trips into the black and then we don't have to implement the full "exploration data" game loop right away, since your employer is the one handling all of the data and just writing you a paycheck 😄
Not sure how we could do exploration for it to be interesting and rewarding. Tacking on a minigame E:D style does not seem to be a good direction.
Multi-leg inspection missions at places with difficult terrain (asteroid belts, complex superstructures, mountainous places etc)
Smuggle deliveries (with more possibility of violence, and opportunity for sneaking and evasion)
Resupply missions (deliveries to uninhabited places with limited opportunities to refuel)
Salvage-ing derelicts, either planet-side of in orbit. Could be a type of mission, where you have to return the haul (or part of it), or one could buy information on derelicts, or just stumble upon them. Distress calls could lead to them also, if the player gets there late, but then it could also involve the police.
- Derelicts could also contain clues to other derelicts or stashes and such, if the player cares to investegate.
Sight-seeing missions where the player could fly to places of interest. Each body and area could have a hidden "coolness" stat, and the player would use their knowledge of the area to figure out a nice route. The pay could then depend on the fun of the trip. And ambushes and such could happen on these trips as well, which could either add or detract from the enjoyment, thus pay.
Mining could be made more elaborate too, but not sure how one would do that. I rarely mined in any game.
Ability to put out distress calls. Either via radio, or a special hyperspace satellite shot back into an inhabited system. Then it would be a question of consumables drain rate and waiting.
Communication would be a nice to have. Both with STC and other ships. Negotiation, taunting, threats, distress calls, gossip, trade information, e-mails, etc
- Light lag could be a really nice thing to have.
STC procedures could be nice. Nothing to elaborate, but the requirement to aim a bit off from a station while on approach, and an indicated ingress or egress point one needs to fly to before flying into/out of the docks. Maybe some speed limits around the stations.
- A larger (say 100km) sphere of influence for orbitals would be nice in my opinion. (With a distance of jump that far for NPC ships, because they tend to clutter the outbound side of the orbitals and ground ports too)
There could be opportunities to do things around cities and on planets: one pad buildings here and there (warehouses, WIP pickup points, etc), remote settlements, where you'd need to rough-land. These could be derived from currently generated buildings, cities and settlements