Bumping this thread a little but a quality system, tied to a few other systems could be seriously engaging, AND difficult for megafactories to monopolize. Here's an outline of my thoughts. I'm using T3 Atmospheric Engines as an example. It's a "what could have been" outline, because I believe the game in it's current state is too far gone to implement this. All of these systems would have to be implemented at the same time, in addition to 2-4 other large content drops in order to not saturate one facet of the gameplay offered.
1.) [Streamlining] Element tiers can remain, but the "military, freight, maneuver, etc" designations wouldn't. Higher tiers would still require higher tier ores and parts to create.
2.) [Quality] Introduce "Quality" stat. Creating a T3 L Atmo Engine from the standard recipe yields a 1* quality. Creating a T3 L Atmo Engine from the standard recipe, and including additional parts yields a 2*-5* quality, offering stat bonuses and aesthetic differences.
3.) [Stats] Introduce stat bonuses from aesthetic/accessory modules. For example, the standard flight seat offers no bonuses. A flight seat of 2* quality that includes tanned and dyed leather (4a), or custom woven textiles (4c) that improves comfort/morale and offering the pilot "sharpness" that manifests as a 10% bonus to maneuverability.
4.) [Special Resources] Introduce resources that cannot be mass-farmed cheaply and must be actively acquired. For instance, isotopes of certain ores that only exist under specific circumstances. Ores with short half-lives that must be immediately processed into an alloy, or will degrade. Materials obtained from new features.
4a.) Introduction of animals could be a way of adding materials tied to them. A form of silicon that only exists on the shells of certain creatures or exists as a biological by-product. Leather from harvesting animals.
4b.) Material formed under intense heat and pressure from an asteroid impact.
4c.) Organic fibers or other material acquired through farming specific plants.
5) [Specialization] Through the existing talents system (should be redone from the ground up as a system that rewards active use of skills, not just passive investment) you could specialize in mass production, or artisanal production. Solo players and small orgs of artisans could get bonuses to efficiency/production time etc. Would rank up and progress through actively producing high quality parts.
A megafactory as it currently exists does so because of a near limitless inflow of minable ores and deep coffers of quanta. They are able to mine through a network of passive miners and players, and purchase materials through the market. Under my system they would still be able to do so, but by following only the standard recipe, their T3 L Atmo Engines are 1* quality, offering only base stats for Tier 3. So while a 1* T3 L Atmo Engine requires only base ingredients, wouldn't they be able to create a 2* with the same process? No.
A 2* T3 L Atmo Engine would require a specific alloy made from an unstable isotope of iron not able to be acquired from passive miners. Individual players would need to acquire it by prospecting for asteroid impact sites (4b) that yield enough of the isotope for 2-7 complete 2* engines. (This is a potential vector for on the ground combat based PvP).
A 3* would require this alloy in addition to a silicon isotope gathered from a predatory chitinous animal that only spawns during specific weather, and so on.
What's to stop the rich DU oligarchs from buying all of these special materials off of the market and having 5* quality megafactories? Here are some potential solutions.
1.) Character bind special materials. A heavy handed approach that I do not prefer, but would force megafactory owners to do their own legwork.
2.) Gathering special materials solo, the effort required to get enough to run 5 lines producing more than 1* T3 Atmo Engines would far surpass the factory's ability to output product. Ergo, a megafactory with 50 production lines, would not be able to exceed the production of a solo player or small org with on 3 production lines based solely on material acquisition time.
3.) If these materials are sufficiently challenging to acquire, players will either hold on to them for their own artisan production, or sell them for a large profit. A megafactory owner COULD purchase the iron isotope alloy from the market, but the price would likely be far in excess of the cost of a single 1* engine. With realistic production constraints from requiring a scarce component, megafactories output of 2*+ elements would be low, and they would have to charge very high prices to make the effort worth it. The inconvenience of doing the legwork is a deterrent for players used to their factories doing the work for them.
4.) On the other hand, a solo player or small org going out to acquire the iron isotope gets to price their labor as they see fit. They did not spent any quanta acquiring it, only time. This makes it much more possible to undercut the megafactories without taking a loss. Megafactories MAY take a loss in the beginning, but the high prices for higher quality elements would chew through their coffers. This is the financial deterrent. Making artisanal elements is easier to do as a solo player or small org where ACTIVELY engaging in gameplay elements is what rewards you with the needed material. NOT simply having a massive factory infrastructure and deep pockets.
I don't believe the system I've outlined above could be implemented now. It would need to have been included upon launch of the Beta, alongside every system in-game now and more. As I said in the intro, the problem is oversaturation of gameplay elements. In the early days of the DU Beta, almost every single person had their own factory pumping out all the elements and parts they needed, which made the market unnecessary. Industry was the single most fleshed out gameplay element (arguably the only one) there was, so everyone flocked to it immediately. Upon the release of 0.23 players were left with nothing to do, and left. Fast forward a year and a half and aside from a couple of additions like missions, the content situation still looks a bit bleak. Were my ideas alone implemented now I believe 90% of current, returning, and new players would flock to it immediately, and when everyone is an artisan, nobody is an artisan. Completed, quality parts would flood the market in weeks, and the people who wanted to make artisan products (not the people who did it because there was nothing else to do) would be left in a situation akin to the markets right now. Where raw materials cost just as much (or more) than finished products, and the time investment of playing the new content didn't make the effort worth it.
The only way I could see this being implemented now is if it also pertained to other newly introduced gameplay systems I haven't mentioned here.