Champions Online, the superhero MMO due out this September, is being developed by Cryptic Studios, the team behind City of Heroes and City of Villains, and the upcoming Star Trek Online. Here, in the third instalment of our exclusive developer diary series, James Laird, Content Design at Cryptic Studios, discuses Crisis Zones in the forthcoming MMO.

I'm the content designer in charge of one of the Monster Island Crisis Zone in Champions Online, which means I've gotten to make "personal crisis" jokes for the past month.

First I want to talk to you about Crisis Zones which introduce players to a new area. Sure, you can have a bunch of NPCs standing around talking about how Monster Island is full of dangerous creatures, but it's a lot more fun to drop you in the middle of a pack of hungry, genetically-altered super-raptors. I could give you loads of contact dialogue and mission text to give you a sense of the supervillain bosses lurking in their lairs... but you'll appreciate them better once you've defeated them and seen them vowing revenge on you. When you run into them again, you know they'll be angry (hint: don't expect them to go down as easily the second time around).

Secondly, Crisis Zones mix it up a bit. They're relatively linear compared to the open-world exploration that comes afterwards. Monster Island Crisis in particular is more like an instance than open-world content. Enemies that are defeated stay defeated. New players won't show up in the middle of the fight: you and any other heroes who start the map together are it. Once you resolve the crisis, the crisis is resolved and there's no reason to hang around. This lets us do some cool gameplay things we can't do in the open world. Friendly NPCs can move into dangerous areas and make them safe. New supervillains can show up in places you've already visited. Best of all, since you'll be coming back to Monster Island once you deal with the crisis, you get to see how Monster Island has changed as a result of your actions. Crisis Zones are turning points in the story as well as offering cool new gameplay.

The third feature of Crisis Zones is that they are a blast to design, because we get to pull out all the stops. Each zone needs starts with a bang, and that bang is a Crisis. The first draft of the Monster Island Crisis had half a dozen major characters in it, and we added a few more as we went along. I'm not saying that I got to make a zone that just had four gigantic boss battles one after the other. Wiping out VIPER's tank division doesn't really count as a boss fight, and you fight some smaller enemies before you power up the twenty-foot-tall mechanical alien dinosaur. Anyway, Crisis Zones by nature are a lot of awesome packed into a small space, and that's as much fun to make as it is to play.

Which isn't to say that it's not a lot of work to make. The toughest part has been providing guidance to the player. In your typical single-player game, there's only one way forward. Moving forward through the level also advances the plot. The maps are filled with bottomless pits, unscalable cliffs, pools of lava, and locked doors in unbreakable walls. Unfortunately, Champions can fly. There's no way to know whether they'll travel along the path, or skim over the water and approach from the sea, or maybe just fly overhead and drop straight down from 500 feet. Parts of the original design doc called for the player to meet NPCs "on the way"--that's not going to happen.

My secret weapon is actually a cool feature from the non-crisis zone: an Open Mission. The open mission displays the same objectives to each player on the map, and shows the same progress to each player no matter who actually got the kill. If some hero defeats Ripper, VIPER's super-strong super-dumb muscle, it doesn't matter who did it--he's down, and that means we can all move on to our next objective. This mixes up the gameplay a bit more--in the Crisis Zone, there's no need to run back to a contact to turn in a completed mission, so it feels different than the open-world zones before and afterward. Adds some variety. Keeps it fresh.

Using an open mission means that there's no danger that a player will lose their connection or drop their mission at the wrong time and not get credit for a kill, or fail to complete a sub-objective and not be able to progress in their mission, or whatever. When they re-connect to the zone they'll automatically see any progress their teammates have made in the meantime and can jump right back in. Seriously, you have no idea how much effort it takes from us designers (and our hardworking QA department) to make sure that you can't screw up a mission by getting disconnected or dropping it or killing enemies in the wrong order.

I'm writing this weeks after Monster Island Crisis was released to beta players. It occurs later in the game (level 30), so the feedback has been a steady stream as players reach the Crisis rather than a flood. I actually prefer this, because it lets me address bugs and comments as they come in. The Crisis gameplay feedback has been extremely positive--one of the most common requests was for a way to re-play the Crisis after completing it. I'll take that as a good sign.