So let's say the heavens part, a miracle occurs, and the developers of Star Trek Online implement my suggestion to allow players of high-ranking characters to assign missions to other characters as a way to earn prestige.
What's to stop players from giving each other as much prestige as they want as rapidly as possible, leading to everybody and his uncle making Admiral by the end of the first week after the game launches?
I've been thinking about this, and while I can't say I've come up with a perfectly satisfactory solution, I've got an idea that might be worth sharing.
First, let's assume we're talking about two characters -- Character A wants to grant some prestige to Character B.
Here are a set of rules I'm thinking might allow this to work while minimizing powerleveling:
1. Prestige from a player mission can only be granted to Character B if Character B successfully completes a mission created by Character A and accepted by Character B.
2. Missions can only be accepted by a character one or more ranks below the rank of the character who created the mission. (Implications: Ensigns can't grant missions to anyone; Admirals cannot accept missions from anyone. More on what this means for admirals in a moment.)
3. Every mission has a base difficulty level that's determined when the mission is created. (I'm honestly not sure yet exactly how this might work. More to come on this, probably....)
4. Mission difficulty levels are named by rank. There would be Ensign-level missions, Commander missions, Captain missions, and so on. (But there would not be Admiral-level missions.) This way players would know in general how tough a mission is before their character accepts it.
Alternately, maybe there should be only three kinds of mission forms -- tactical, operational, and strategic -- and the department level description (e.g., Novice, Veteran, Legendary) would be what determines the general difficulty rating of the mission. A Legendary Tactical mission would be just as hard as a Legendary Strategic mission; the only difference would be the form of the goal to be accomplished.
5. The amount of prestige granted to a character upon successful completion of the accepted mission is automatically set to be proportional to the total mission difficulty. (This is the key rule for preventing powerleveling, since letting the game determine the amount of prestige to be awarded prevents players from granting one another arbitrarily huge quantities of prestige.)
6. The total amount of prestige calculated for a given mission is divided equally among the number of characters in the group that completes the mission. (This compensates for the reduction in mission difficulty due to grouping. There is a solo-vs.-group concern that may need to be addressed here, however.)
7. Prestige is only gained by a character after an accepted mission is successfully completed.
8. If Character B (or Character B's group) fails the mission, or cancels it, no one gains any prestige, but no one loses any prestige. (Penalizing any character for someone failing a mission could lead to griefing by losers who accept missions in order to deliberately fail them.)
And here are some auxiliary rules which occurred to me might really make flag rank mean something in Star Trek Online (instead of being a mere grindable badge as in other MMORPGs):
9. Prestige is not actually taken away from Character A and given to Character B when Character B successfully completes one of Character A's missions. Instead, the full amount of prestige for the mission (again, proportional to the overall difficulty level of the mission, and divided by the number of players in the group that completed the mission) is created out of thin air and given to Character B, while Character A receives 20% of that amount of prestige as a reward.
10. Admirals would be able to create missions and leave them on a "duty station" for any lower-ranked character to accept. (This would free Admiral-rank players from having to be logged in constantly in order to generate missions for other players to take.)
11. And here's the kicker: player missions that are successfully completed are the only way that Admirals can gain prestige. No character with the rank of Admiral can gain any prestige from NPCs.
Personally, I'm loving that Rule 11. Think about what it would do: Captains would be able to score plenty of prestige by racing around the galaxy in their assigned starship, doing various NPC things... but if you choose to accept promotion to Admiral, you trade in your starship for a desk at Starfleet HQ. And once you're an admiral, the only way you can advance any further is by creating missions for other players to perform that are of strategic value to the Federation and -- and this is the important gameplay part -- which will be fun for other lower-ranked players to do.
Promotion to Admiral would very definitely not lead to "more of the same" gameplay! Instead, the admiral-level game would be about organizational influence. The best admirals would be those who can most effectively generate fun gameplay for other players that serves Starfleet's interests.
I'm really liking that idea.