A new blog I just ran accross had a post (Justified Expectations of Pleasant Surprises), that reminded me of of a change I would like to see, regarding 'blind' tech exploration, similar to the options in Alpha Centauri where you could put put research into general categories, but not towards a specific technology.
One of the biggest 'suspension of disbelief' difficulties to me is to be able to set research on a 'schedule'. I would love to see a set of paths with a 'bell curve' of probabilities where most societies research this or that, but some early innovation by the Drengin where a technology opens new paths and closes off others, perhaps even to the point of going back to a unified tech tree with 'critical' technologies that shape their culture early on being the precursors that later give the Altarians a different technological 'horizon' from a minor race, the Terran's, or the Korx.
Maybe a system where current technologies gave 'points', similar to the way 'creativity' works now, for the development of newer, more advanced technologies, with the more points received, the higher the probability that you stumble across the new technology. Most obvious off the top of my head example, setting each level of laser to a specific number of points towards the next level of laser, but also a smaller number of point for the development of say, particle beams (Related technology), point defenses (as smaller lasers develop), and miniaturization (same).
This would make the different tech trees actually unique on a per game basis, with the imperial government playing a role guiding where you research, but not necessarily controlling the end result, and forcing you to deal with the fact that you don't have the doom rays you wants, but you have the best lasers and smallest point defense systems in the galaxy - <G>.
As an interesting thought - this could actually be expanded in several complementary ways (and I'm just mulling this over at the moment, rather than having something well thought through),
A - it could be used to create an actual 'path' that distinguishes the minor races from the majors. Considering the tech tree as not simply a technological history, but as a cultural history, and you could create a dozen different early, but slightly off the bell curve paths that make for development of a race that will eventually become a real power. This in contrast would make the minors simply races that never quite got there, never had any 'unique' cultural advantages that generated (for instance) influence and gave an early advantage in the expansion into space (It might also set a system for the rare situation where a previously minor power moves into the power vacuum after the collapse of an empire.)
B - you could institute a very few odd cultural events that created 'splits' (The 'canon' example being the Drengin and the Korath), whether 'friendly', or civil war, in which an empire would split into two smaller empires - you might even code it so if it happened to the player, (s)he could choose which side of the split to run, leaving the other to the computer. It would be similar to the 'jagged knife' (right name?) event, but with only one empire affected at a given moment, set up so there are clear 'borders' (Okay, AOI) between the resulting sides.
C - for that matter, you could augment the 'good and evil' path with the random event already in the game where you make actual choices into a cultural history path, with defining characteristics chosen as you advance - by the time you actually got to the 'good and evil' choice (Although if I ever get my mod off the ground, I swear I'm going for a Vorlon/Shadow "Lords of Order" vs "Lords of Chaos" paradigm) that wouldn't be a choice as such, but the logical progression of the previous choices. This makes those choices less arbitrary (As it sits, I don't know why you would 'chose' the evil path. Given the rewards the universe gives you for being 'evil' by choice before you make that 'final' choice, no good reason to close off those options. Well, Okay, now that the MCC works right, the Unimatrix was having fun with that one, but not nearly as much reason as there was for getting it out of the way if you were going for being 'good')
It seems to me that a number of hard coded 'arbitrary' decisions could easily be brought into a more comprehensive 'tech/cultural' tree with blind research - just setup the majors so certain 'random' cultural events in the early tree were chosen pre-game the same way the techs are now, but, minors come into the game with the center 'bell curve' selections preset. Done that way, you could even set it up so everyone starts as a 'minor' and either randomly ascends to become a major power (With some tweaking to ensure the player becomes a major? Or be a *real* man, play as a minor race! Go fighting Spemin!)or, ah, doesn't. Maybe you have 16 majors in a given game, maybe only two or three, even with 16 homeworlds occupied.