I assume that the game is played in IronMan mode, mainly because one cannot count deaths in the game but one can count the number of times the escape pod was used. I plan to use that to adjust the difficulty too. So basically the average difficulty is a function of your Kill/Death ratio. This also means you can pay 1000Cr for an easier game
Now that I understand your proposal a little better iron-man does seem to suit it and the escape pod trick is a good one.
If I understand correctly, you propose an 'end-game' of ever increasing difficulty until the player no longer has the skills to cope. Rather than escalation, I favour oscillation (as I attempted to describe above).
No, it's worse than that!
Because fighting against 100 aimbots is not fun, there has to be a reasonable cap to both accuracy and numbers, so in a second phase the difficulty increases only by slowly killing the economy. So your profits should be like an inverse parabolic curve, ideally with the peak near the second phase. At this point you should have a "war treasure" that will slowly evaporate.
'Killing the economy' is a nice idea. I'd suggest it happen to systems randomly rather than in any kind of encroaching frontier where the player can almost ignore it until the very end.
We can have oscillations but without escalation - well we are back to square one, to the game as it is now.
I don't think that has to be the case. Inherent in oscillation is of course alternate escalation and de-escalation. Whilst I appreciate that is not what you mean when you mention escalation that is (I would argue) precisely what can make it work. Not by jumping from 1 to 2 perhaps (using my numbers above) but from 1 to 3.
Such a strategy is far from perfect in that it likely requires significant periods spent in 1 with short, far-apart bursts of 3. The game as it is now is either ending all 1 or oscillating between 1 and 2 (unless the player attempts something suicidal for no reward whether financial or story-wise). Missions can add variety in a number of ways, simply taking on a tougher pirate pack offers little.
The second phase kicks one a criteria I'm not sure about yet (Dangerous rating? maximum level? Both?)
I do rather like the idea of the later player ratings (Dangerous etc.) signifying something. Once I got to dangerous in elite all I got was bored.
IIRC after competent there is dangerous, deadly and elite. It might be nice if each one heralded some sort of change in how the game treats you. I think some missions use rating as a criteria but I'm not sure how rationalised or consistent this is.
In a cut-throat galaxy by the time you were dangerous you'd probably have become known and feared/respected by some groups. By the time you were deadly you might be sought out by all sorts of groups looking to exploit your skills and, as a consequence, by those seeking to be rid of you. At elite you'd probably have enemies, assassins and even just challengers after you.
Missions could make more of special stipulations. No refueling (nova mission does somthing like this I think)/ no repairs (timeline too tight)/ no ecm (sensitive cargo)/ no hyperdrive (mustn't leave a trace)/ no rear laser(some other item or energy drain active)/ no fancy ship (posing as a trader or non-combatent) or even (really tough) no energy recharge
(any insane reason you'd like to punish the player with).
Talk is cheap of course.
A 'second phase' as you put it does recognise that the early and later game experience different issues and I do like some of your ideas but it does all sound rather like a (very interesting) special scenario or game mode to me, rather than a game standard.
I wouldn't be against such things as a major Thargoid invasion *in a particular portion of a particular galaxy* that makes things very tough there. The player's choice is then: stay and fight (and maybe improve the situation), stay and trade (in a crisis there is much profit to be made at elevated risk!), avoid that sector, or just leave that galaxy, and the next time you enter that galaxy the problem's resolved. Player choice in a ooniverse that "doesn't care" is everything.
Different 'end-games' in different galaxies? Perhaps one of them could even be the current game 'ending'?
It's not an easy 'problem' to fix, at least not in a way that is to the satisfaction of most players.