K, here's how this might work:
Each empire has a starting technology related to their language and culture. If one empire possesses the cultural technology of another empire, those two empires can engage in any diplomatic activity whatsoever, without restriction. An empire which does not possess another empire's cultural tech will have a large espionage penalty in that empire.
By default, cultural techs are not researchable. However, certain circumstances can change this:
"Empire X Ship Components" is a strategic resource. Collecting any of this resource will make that empire's cultural tech available for research, in much the same way acquiring "Space Monster X" makes techs related to that particular space monster available for research, or acquiring "Xentronium" makes techs related to Xentronium available for research.
"Empire X Ship Components" could potentially be used for the following purposes:
- They can be turned into minerals at a fixed ratio (1:1?)
- They can be spent to speed up researching that empire's cultural tech
- They can be used to speed up certain espionage projects, such as stealing enemy ship designs
- They can be used in lieu of Trade when creating a ship disguised as that empire's ship
"Empire X Ship Components" might be accumulated automatically by destroying enemy ships, or they might be acquired by damaging enemy ships with a particular very-short-range weapon, designed particularly for the purpose of scavenging strategic resources from enemy ships (so if the ship happened to include Xentronium, attacking it with the "Wrecking Claw" would net you some Xentronium as well). Either way, it should be the same method used to get "Space Monster X" from the space monster in question.
Other methods of acquiring an enemy empire's cultural tech include:
- Espionage. Since there is a big espionage penalty for not having the tech you're trying to steal, this is obviously a lengthy and expensive process.
- Diplomacy. Ordinary diplomatic action cannot be taken if neither empire has the other's cultural tech. Therefore, this can only occur through Tactical Diplomacy (I am definitely opposed to making this the only type of diplomacy btw - just because I think all system action should occur on the tactical map doesn't mean I'm some nut-job who thinks all diplomacy should happen on the tactical map as well!).
On this page
I discuss a little bit the distinction between Combat and Non-Combat Objectives. There could also be "Diplomatic Objectives" (which under the strict definition and the purpose with which I used it in that page, would be a Combat Objective, but it obviously would be separate from anything that would be called a "Combat Objective" to the player), which would involve making diplomatic contact with an empire and acquiring their diplomatic tech. Tactical Diplomacy would normally involve only very basic negotiations, for example "We will restrict our Combat Objectives to 'Defend Against Enemy Forces' and select 'Auto-Resolve' for the rest of the quantum if you do as well," and if the the other player accepts this offer, the defined action takes place automatically. The extent of the type of diplomatic negotiations that should be allowable in combat is debatable, but at the very least, players should be able use tactical diplomacy to
- Demand, give or exchange access to another player's stargates, or activation of starlane-synthesizing technology
- Demand, give or exchange deactivation of warp-dissipation technology or other types of starlane-inhibiting technology
- Give, demand and exchange cultural tech
So now, there are 4 ways to access an empire's cultural tech:
- Acquire "Empire X Ship Components" with your "Wrecking Claw" weapon (or just by destroying their ships, but that's kind of boring), which will make the tech available for your empire to research and can be sped up using "Empire X Ship Components"
- Steal the cultural tech through espionage, which is extremely costly and time consuming due to the espionage penalty implicit in not having said tech in the first place
- Tactical Diplomacy
- Regular diplomacy with some other empire who has the cultural tech you want, or from that empire itself, if it has your cultural tech and can communicate with you that way
Bear in mind that everything I said earlier about being able to turn diplomatic contact on and off at will based on having visibility of an object belonging to the other empire still stands - that can be considered the "phone number" aspect of things, whereas the cultural tech represents the "language" end of things. Even if everyone in the galaxy has your cultural tech, they still can't contact you unless they can detect an object belonging to you, or you can detect an object belonging to them and have diplomatic contact turned "on" for that empire.
I also agree that having a scalar "Contact Level" is overcomplex. The cultural tech is essentially a binary "Contact Level", and accomplishes everything that a scalar one could without a lot of the complexity involved - I'm trying to make this work while adding as few extra rules as possible, tying everything in to some other aspect of the game. Adding an extra "Contact level" meter is almost certainly beyond what I would be willing to add for the sake of making first contact more interesting.
Geoff's general idea about stealing techs is that you never get the whole thing, you might steal a lot of progress on a certain tech, but you need to put in some of your own RP to use it.
My perception if his idea wasn't that you can never get the whole thing, just that you don't get it all at once - an espionage project for "stealing" a certain tech would simply add research points to the tech in question until it's completed, which seems like a reasonable way to go about it. This wouldn't imply that you can't get the whole thing from espionage, or that you can't potentially get it in a single turn, if your espionage meters are high enough, and the opponent's happiness meters are low enough.