another of mrxak's infrequent topics
I've been thinking about economies and corporations, and how they may evolve into space. I've come to several conclusions to present to you, as I do from time to time, for your discussion. I hope perhaps some of the ideas contained or generated by this topic will aid you in your plug-in endeavors.
The emphasis on huge interstellar governments in many plug-ins (or science fiction in general) strikes me more and more as a convenience instead of a realistic vision. Assuming all creatures of a planet achieving sentience socialize in a progression from tribes to city-states to nations, with barriers between rivals ever-increasing, I wonder how likely it really would be for a unified planetary government. The expansion of NATO antagonizes Russia despite many similar goals. The expansion of the EU causes problems with existing members. It is a well-known concept in international relations: the stronger you become, the more people ally against you to balance the power. Assuming no one power is capable of truly conquering all others, and the weak will gather to oppose the strong, the best any planet (at least any origin planet) can achieve is a stable bipolar system.
We can also reasonably assume these governmental powers will be most concerned with national security and seeing to the needs of their people. The simple truth is that there's always more problems for governments to fix, and seeming-luxuries will always take a back seat. The government will always choose to fix health care or fix the economy before they see that everyone gets a free plasma TV in their home, no matter how many of their citizens really want one. Similarly, pure science will not be emphasized, unless there is a national security demand. Specifically, I speak to the space race during the Cold War or concerns that x nation is falling behind y nation in test scores.
NASA is poorly funded, certainly woefully funded compared to the potential benefits NASA might achieve for our species. NASA remains the only organization to get a human being onto another planet or satellite. NASA will continue to be poorly funded so long as it does not provide a national security benefit or fulfill a major need. There's simply too many other problems that need governmental attention. The same can be said of other governmental space programs. The Chinese and Japanese currently believe space programs are important for their national security or national pride, and thus are both working towards manned moon missions, but their overall impact is unknown.
On the other hand, governments are not the only agents capable of spaceflight and exploration. While governments are primarily designed to see to our basic needs, companies are designed to see to our less-basic needs, even our luxuries. We have already had a manned spaceflight with entirely no government funding or assistance. SpaceShipOne is only the beginning. The same X PRIZE Foundation that rewarded the venture is offering a $20 million reward for a non-government moon rover. There's 14 teams registered now. We may very well see a team win the prize before 2013 or 2015. It's a significant step towards a manned trip to Luna.
The commercialization of space is a given. There are already people buying their way into space on government-funded craft, and soon companies may be applying what they learned on X PRIZES and such do to full-blown space tourism. Companies, trying ever to become more efficient, will make space travel cheaper and better. How soon is it before the first commercial colonies get set up on the Moon or Mars? When will the first orbital Space Hotel start having permanent residents? The answer is clear. We we see these things happen long before the world's governments fix all of our problems and turn their eyes to colonizing space.
While space tourism is certainly a potential source of profits on its own, I do not think it is the real money maker. Energy drives the world's economy now, and space has quantities of cheap reliable energy we can only now dream of. Imagine a massive solar panel array set up at a Lagrange point to collect energy and later beam it to where it is needed. Imagine harvesting hydrogen off of Jupiter to bring back to Mars or a space station to power some kind of fusion reactor. Companies may also find that the low gravity of the Moon or another location is ideal for heavy construction. Materials mined from moons or planets will also provide what is needed for various products or equipment. Perhaps we are able to grow food much easier in low gravity somewhere the sun shines year-round and doesn't have off-seasons. Perhaps there are companies that can conduct pure research and sell their patents to companies that depend on the latest edge over their space competitors. The possibilities are quite endless, and beyond the intellectual scope or imagination of most world government leaders.
So when the call goes out for volunteers to take part in an expedition to colonize a distant planet in another solar system, I doubt it will be a government, certainly not a world government, that will be funding it. Assuming FTL travel is possible, space is probably big enough that a few different mega corporations can divide up the local stars, then a few more might branch out and divide up a few more distant stars. I imagine entertainment will become/remain our most valued luxury item, and the more digital it is, the better. While a trip to another habitat might be a nice vacation, people will mostly use some form of virtual reality, perhaps even holographics of some sort, for their R&R. These digital programs will be sold directly to space-faring corporations which will in turn sell them to colonists for a licensing fee. Because they take up no physical space and can be transmitted without wires, they will become the cost-effective solution to keeping workers happy on their off-shifts. Other luxuries may include better living spaces, or even the ownership of land.
So I do not see massive interplanetary governments fighting with each other over resources. I see one company owning a system or two here, another company owning another few systems over here, and so on. Should government exist, it would remain local, and mostly to keep order. A legal system for criminals, a few public works not provided by the modular habitats, etc. These governments would likely form out of labor unions on commercial colonies, or agreements by private colonists. Should space travel become cheap "enough", there may be non-commercial colonies that set out on their own by pooling resources to buy a space ship and some habitats. These non-commercial colonies would likely remain small for hundreds of years, and wouldn't be worth bothering with.
Because large overarching governments or legal systems would not exist out in space, actual warfare between corporations might occur. It might start small, like the destruction of a scout probe in an already-claimed system, or the occasional colonist massacre in the deep space between stars. There could be corporate sabotage or theft. In any case, corporations might arm themselves and conduct war, and it would no doubt be irrational (space is big). Through that, there might be colonial militias, planetary defense systems, and even warships in space, all paid for as a corporate expense as part of doing business. A hostile takeover of another corporation might take on a completely new meaning. But would one corporation truly be able to take over even a large portion of known space? I go back to what I said about international relations theory. The weaker will ally against the strong. Corporations, as greedy and hostile as they might become, will be unable to exert much control over their neighbors. It comes down to profit, risks and rewards. Without government ideologies to make the other guy out to be evil (or worse yet, needing help to become more civilized, etc.), war will be a purely economic matter, and most corporations wishing to survive to profit another day will not let their minor skirmishes become all-out fights to the death. Still, I have no doubt arms dealers will do quite well in the future. Privateers and anti-privateers will also burgeon.
So, how might this work as a plug-in? Perhaps with a galaxy populated by many different gövts of many types, each a corporate entity with its own missions at odds with each other. The player could do any number of these in any order, conducting raids or espionage on another corporation, getting colonists or supplies to various planets. Perhaps the suppression of a rebellious union is in order. There might be companies that do supply runs or shipping for a number of different corporations, competing with another shipping company. There might be some mercenary organizations that need help fighting pirates or just doing work for the highest bidder. Perhaps the player will want to work for himself to manipulate markets or find secrets somebody will pay for. The player might gain a reputation as a privateer hostile to a particular corporation, and find himself fired on if he enters certain systems, or being hunted by a group of corporations trying to wipe out a corp you're friendly with. I don't know, but it might be interesting for you to think about.