In Voidspace, we wanted to create a way for players to progress technology naturally; in a way that is familiar to people because it mimics real life. Most people probably haven't put much thought into how inventions get invented in real life, so this familiarity isn't likely to help the average person, but at least it's realistic to a degree that we believe has never been attempted in a video game before.
The idea is to simulate a real human society where individuals slowly push technological innovation forward, getting iteratively better and better as science and engineering is improved over time. We also wanted to emulate this in a realistic way, not just gamifying it with some global +1 to "technology". Instead, players improve their technology and infrastructure by iterating on ideas until a better result is achieved, and by building better equipment and structures to assist in this endeavour
Just like in real life, invention in Voidspace starts with an idea. Ideas are pretty easy to come by, for the most part. You tend to get a new idea randomly or while you're doing things that are tangentially related to it. Sometimes you'll get an idea when you're doing something completely different because your mind wanders and you start thinking about something else. In Voidspace your character can get an idea under any of these circumstances.
At this stage of development, ideas are only discovered while studying (experimenting on) an item. When you study an item you get experience points in that item's class and some skills are unlocked once you reach a certain level of experience in that item class. Later on we will allow all ideas to be freely shared between characters. Ideas are going to be pretty easy to share and it'll allow players to get up-to-speed quicker, especially once society has moved forward technologically as players bring forth a modern world. Some skills may also be teachable, but that'll end up being more complicated and it will depend on the skill.
Once you have an idea, you can attempt to design or prototype it. If successful, this will result in a new "technique" or "skill" that you can then use at any time. If it's a construction skill then any time you build something with this particular skill it will result in the same quality item. Most items have random stats and these random stats are decided during the prototyping stage; stats are randomly generated and unique each time you prototype/design an idea, generating a new technique for a skill. A simple example is a mining pick, which has a "Mining Power" property. Each skill you create for yourself will result in a pick that has a random mining power, so you are encouraged to keep trying to get new techniques until you get one that you like, in this case, one that gives you the highest mining power.
Keep in mind that the stats are not always completely random. The tools and materials used to construct the item can also influence the outcome. For example, using a better blow torch can make deconstructing iron items into scrap much faster. Using a better alternator will make your steam generator more efficient, and produce more energy per second.
In the future we will also be mixing in influences based on your character experience points. You gain experience with a thing every time you work with it, be it through studying/experimenting on it, or by using it as part of a material or tool to construct something else. You also gain experience in each skill you perform. Eventually this experience will sometimes have an effect on the resulting item from a skill, although this isn't currently implemented just yet.
Looking ahead even further, we will be adding an additional complication in the form of satisfaction. Similar to the Sims where characters need to be happy with their environment and food, Voidspace will feature characters that need to be well fed and happy with their surroundings in order to maximize their abilities to perform feats of engineering and science. A starving person will generally not be very motivated to create things that aren't absolutely necessary. A person who feels like they're living in a hole in the ground will probably suffer depression and a lack of motivation as a result. These human traits will eventually be modeled and make it necessary for people to specialize in offering high quality food and environment items to make your characters well fed and happy.