When the first-person parkour game Mirror’s Edge launched in 2008, players reacted with a wide range of emotions.
Many praised the unique take on a first-person game, one that attempted to perfect movement and platforming in that perspective. Others criticized publisher Electronic Arts and developer DICE for not going far enough. Most notoriously, the game still allowed the player to pick up and shoot guns as a last resort, a mechanic that broke the flow and showed a lack of polish.
The general feeling at EA seems to be that Mirror’s Edge performed fine. It wasn’t a huge failure, but it also wasn’t a massive success. And yet, in the near decade since its release, the game has stayed lodged in gaming’s consciousness.
Maybe it was the unique art style. Maybe it was the sense of speed. Perhaps it was the unique feeling of a first-person action game that wasn’t primarily focused on shooting, years before the narrative-heavy, no-combat style would become a staple of the indie game scene. Whatever the reason, Mirror’s Edge remained a centerpiece of conversations with an ever-growing, passionate fanbase. And more than anything, that fanbase wanted a sequel.
Now, nearly eight years later, EA and DICE are finally ready to provide that sequel. But before making it, the studio went through a lengthy process, with multiple teams pitching their own ideas for the long-awaited sequel. A process that itself mirrored the birth of the first Mirror’s Edge.
"I had no idea that Mirror’s Edge was what we were going to end up building," says EA Studios executive vice president Patrick Söderlund.
In the mid-2000s, Söderlund was CEO of DICE (a.k.a. Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment), a Swedish game development studio that North American mega-publisher EA acquired in 2006. Prior to that purchase, when EA owned a majority stake in the studio, DICE was looking to stretch its creative muscles and remind everyone that it was independent.
"There was a push inside the studio to do something different," Söderlund says. "... At the time that we were still an independent company. We wanted to push for a new IP."
Up to that point, DICE had made a name for itself first with racing games and then with the increasingly popular Battlefield military shooter series. Given Battlefield's popularity, DICE was inevitably going to continue developing the franchise. But while the majority of the studio focused on new Battlefield entries, several small groups of three to five developers began workshopping pitches for something new.
Over the course of a year-and-a-half, Söderlund saw 10 different pitches in various states. Some just had concept art; others had functioning prototypes. But none of them were what he wanted the studio to pursue.
"Nothing really stood out or felt unique enough or different," he says. "Whenever you’re in a position to create something new, you have to really think about what you’re trying to build, who you’re building it for and what you want to achieve. For us, we wanted to do something that was different, that had its own place in the market and felt fresh and unique."
To Söderlund, this wasn’t just a one-time process; he says even today it’s a core piece of DICE’s studio identity.
"At some point, in a creative organization, in order for it to continue to thrive, you have to challenge people to do something that they’re not comfortable with," he says. Lots of people presented what Söderlund calls "really cool" ideas, but no one brought forward something that actually got him nervous about whether or not DICE could pull it off.
After over a year of searching, a team came to Söderlund with a pitch that gave him pause: a parkour-based first-person game.
"I think my first reaction was, ‘That sounds like a really bad idea,’" Söderlund recalls, laughing. "First-person movement, in general, is difficult. For you to understand where you are in the world, spatial awareness becomes difficult."
Erik Odeldahl was new to DICE in 2006 and primarily working on the Battlefield series at the time. He remembers the wave of excitement the earliest Mirror’s Edge demo caused at the company, though.
"I remember testing a white box demo," Odeldahl says. "It was basically only first-person movements in a completely untextured environment but with fairly decent animations. I remember being completely blown away."
Whenever someone looked at a screenshot of this game, I wanted them to understand immediately what game it was.
Odeldahl recalls coming up to a wall in this first demo and wondering if he could run on it. Without any tutorial or direction, he pulled it off, and it left a huge grin on his face. He immediately wanted to be on the project, but he had an obligation to the Battlefield franchise, and Mirror’s Edge had yet to be greenlit.
Söderlund was worried about the difficulty of pulling off the core concept behind Mirror’s Edge, but he couldn’t deny that it was a unique idea, something he had never seen before. The team was persistent and continued working on the idea even without his full support. Eventually it brought it back to him with a prototype that included refined first-person movement and the element that sold Söderlund on the concept: a bright, hyper-clean art style.
"At the time, I remember looking at a lot of games, and they all kind of looked the same," he says. "I challenged the team in art direction. Whenever someone looked at a screenshot of this game, I wanted them to understand immediately what game it was."
With an outstanding look, a unique gameplay hook and the introduction of a memorable protagonist in the form of Faith, Söderlund was finally won over by Mirror’s Edge. "I fell in love with the whole concept," he says.
EA revealed the game to the public in 2007, and released it in November of 2008.
To understand why it took so long for DICE to pursue a Mirror’s Edge sequel, it’s important to understand the first game’s level of success, particularly through the metrics of a major publisher like EA. Even Söderlund couches its sales and critical performance in less superlative terms than you might expect from a publisher executive.
"The reception for Mirror’s Edge was pretty good," he says. "Obviously, you always want better."
Söderlund believes the team that created the first game nailed many aspects of what it needed, including the character Faith and the general feel of first-person movement. And yet, he admits, "When you’re trying to break new ground, it’s difficult to get the formula perfected."
Some of Mirror’s Edge’s imperfections include the lackluster story, a controversial, fast-paced movement system that needed a little more polish and, yes, the game’s inclusion of the ability to wield guns.
"We maybe didn’t dare to go all the way with the product in the sense that we decided to throw in weapons, and you could pick them up and shoot," Söderlund says. "In hindsight, in all candor, that maybe was not the best fit for the game."
Odeldahl, who watched the first game's development with increasing curiosity inside the studio, says there were discussions about potentially removing guns back then. But the team had "a clear design intent" when it decided to include them.
"Picking up a gun really slows you down," he says. "It’s like a counterpoint to the fluid movement. There was an intent there, which I think is really interesting. But for this game and for Faith as a character also, it didn’t fit."
The same criticisms that being discussed within the studio were talking points for critics and the public at large in the weeks and months after Mirror’s Edge’s release. But there was also lots of praise being directed at the game. Amo Mostofi, now a producer at DICE, was not working at the company yet. He says that playing Mirror’s Edge for the first time was a "what the hell moment."
"I experienced it in the same way, I think, as so many of the fans did," Mostofi says. "From the first-person perspective, you’re so used to a certain style of gameplay. This just broke the mold completely."
Mostofi became obsessed with the game, playing it over and over and watching speedrunners who worked to constantly shave seconds off of near-flawless runs through each level. It was, much more so than any Battlefield release, the game that made Mostofi want to work at DICE.
Battlefield, however, was really starting to blow up. Certain parties within DICE, including Odeldahl, began pushing for a second chance at Mirror’s Edge within a year of the first game’s release. But the demand for Battlefield was greater than ever, and the studio needed more people working on it. On top of that, Söderlund says he wanted to take the approach to a sequel slow. He wanted to wait for the right idea.
He wanted to handle it similarly to how the team created the first game.
Several years after Mirror’s Edge’s release, Söderlund once more put out a challenge to the developers at DICE. He allowed a handful of small groups of developers – teams of two or three – to come up with their own pitches for a potential Mirror’s Edge sequel. Once again, Söderlund and others at EA sat through multiple pitch meetings with ideas at various stages of development. And once again, nothing was quite clicking in the way Söderlund and the publisher wanted.
Söderlund describes one of the more impressive pitches for a potential sequel that he sat in on. This one was far enough along to actually have a rendered, playable demo, the kind of thing that could easily have served as the announcement of the game. It was a nighttime scene, featuring Faith running through the city under the cover of dark, blazing along with all the speed and grace that fans of the original loved, taking out armed guards and never slowing down. It was cool, slick, action-packed; it was everything EA could have asked for in a follow-up.
For Söderlund, though, it was just too familiar.
"We were kind of going down the same path," Söderlund says. "It would have been a better game, and we would have done more, but would have been more of the same."
Söderlund didn’t want more of the same, because he felt like that approach to a sequel couldn’t address the problems DICE ran into with the first game. Moreover, just pumping out a minimal improvement over the original wasn’t true to the roots of that game, nor the developer’s creative ambitions, he says.
What DICE needed was a new perspective on Mirror’s Edge. What it needed was some new blood.
Sara Jansson started work at DICE as an associate producer around the same time that the first Mirror’s Edge was in development. Like Erik Odeldahl, her primary focus was on Battlefield. But also like Odeldahl, she watched the development of Mirror’s Edge with interest, and she wanted a shot at the future of the series.
For her first step, Jansson recruited Odeldahl to serve as lead designer on her pitch. He remembers the day Jansson asked him to be involved. Within a moment of her asking, he let out an eager reply: "Of, of course. I have to do this. I’m going to do this."
They also brought in an art director to maintain the first game’s striking visual style, and a technical director to create a logical roadmap for building the game once they had ideas in place. Then they locked themselves in a room and got to work on a pitch.
"What we looked at first of all was that we wanted to open up the game," Odeldahl says. "That’s where it started. We wanted to open up the world for exploration."
As Jansson and her team looked at the various failed pitches for Mirror’s Edge sequels, they realized that many of them shared one thing in common: They were, like the first game, linear and level-based in structure. Odeldahl had the breakthrough idea of turning the game that would become Mirror’s Edge Catalyst into an open-world game. This move would set it apart from the first game while also creating an outlet to better explore the unique world.
"We wanted missions," says Odeldahl. "We wanted side missions. We wanted more characters to interact with. We wanted secrets hidden everywhere."
As with the first game, Söderlund’s first sign that Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was the one was concern over whether or not DICE could pull it off, he says.
"My immediate reaction to the idea of making Mirror’s Edge open-world was, ‘Whoa, that sounds difficult, and it’s going to take a lot of time,’" he says, laughing. "At the same time, you can look at an open-world game like Grand Theft Auto, which is gigantic and where it truly is a sandbox, and you can more or less do whatever you want. Or you can describe an open-world game like one of the Batman: Arkham Asylum games. Maybe those are a little more confined. It’s still seen as an open-world game, but not as expansive as GTA."
Söderlund, Jansson and Odeldahl found themselves in agreement that trying to turn Mirror’s Edge into something the scale of a Grand Theft Auto would not work. But as a more focused open-world game, one where everything in the world was built to enhance the game’s key mechanic of movement – that was exactly the unique hook Söderlund says he had been waiting for.
"They took a very different stance and approach to Mirror’s Edge," Söderlund says of Jansson and Odeldahl. "They made it more modern in its design and more relevant, I would say. They also made some bold changes to the design."
It helped convince Söderlund, as well, that the small team also had a plan to facilitate its arduous goal of creating an open-world where the free running of Mirror’s Edge just works.
"When we started building the City of Glass [the setting of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst], we blocked out all of the districts," Odeldahl explains. "Really early on, we had the city built out so you could traverse all of it. That shows us which areas were fine and just needed to be iterated on and improved. Other areas, we needed to change completely because it didn’t work. We basically started with the big building blocks and then just filled it in with more and more paths."
That’s not to say it was easy, of course. Odeldahl says there is not a single random element in the level design of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. "A level designer or level artist has placed each object exactly where it should be," he insists. This process has been time consuming, he says, but necessary to ensure that every part of the city functions perfectly with Faith’s moveset.
Another key to Jansson and Odeldahl’s vision for Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was dropping guns entirely. Despite recognizing the gun combat as a weakness of the first Mirror’s Edge, Söderlund was initially skeptical of the choice. Jansson, in particular, was adamant. The Faith in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst didn’t need guns; she would be a stronger character, and it would be a better game, without them.
It was part of the pitch: We’re going to do first-person melee. Everybody said, ‘That’s really hard.’ Yes, it is. But it was the right thing to do.
"We decided to get rid of guns really early on," says Odeldahl. "It was part of the pitch: We’re going to do first-person melee. Everybody said, ‘That’s really hard.’ Yes, it is. But it was the right thing to do for this title, and we stuck to it and overcame the problems associated with it."
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst narrative designer Christofer Emgard hadn’t joined the team at this early stage of the development, but the decision to cut guns was one he felt passionately about from a story perspective as well.
"I always felt that it was the cleaner choice from a narrative standpoint," he says. "It’s more fitting with her as a character and also the world in general. Having guns in the first game was maybe diluting that mojo. Removing it is more refined."
With a solid vision for Mirror’s Edge Catalyst and, now, the support of Söderlund and EA, Jansson and Odeldahl began working on the game in earnest in 2012. They expanded the team, bringing fresh DICE recruit Amo Mostofi over from the Battlefield series as a lead producer and hiring Emgard to be the team’s in-house writer. James Slavin joined as an audio director. Together, that small team began the hard work of preparing to reveal the long-requested sequel to the world.
On the afternoon of June 10, 2013, Erik Odeldahl stood backstage at the Shrine Auditorium with frayed nerves. On stage, EA had just finished showing off a bombastic 64-player multiplayer demo of Battlefield 4. This is normally where EA’s E3 press conference would end, but the company told those in attendance and watching online that it had a surprise to share.
The surprise was a minutelong trailer for the new Mirror’s Edge game that Odeldahl and team had been working on, which didn’t yet carry the Catalyst part of its title.
"I was panicking, because this was the first time we were going to show anything," Odeldahl says. "There was this gasp. There was this weird lull – lots of noise from the audience, and then suddenly it went quiet. And then ... it just erupted."
Back home at DICE’s headquarters in Stockholm, Sweden, Christofer Emgard and the handful of other members of the small team working on the game watched the press conference from a projector in the studio’s kitchen. The reaction that Odeldahl felt there in person didn’t carry over via video, so immediately after the press conference finished, Emgard took to YouTube and began obsessively watching reaction videos.
"It felt very powerful to be part of this thing where people seemed to be reacting in such a positive way," he says.
While DICE didn’t show very much of what would become Mirror’s Edge Catalyst in 2013, fans picked up on some important elements quickly. Most notably, EA was not positioning this as a sequel. Rather, the company said it was going to present a new origin story for protagonist Faith. Emgard was the key to the developer’s attempt to create a better story this time around.
"It was important for Mirror’s Edge Catalyst to get a writer to be in-house all the time," says audio director James Slavin. Emgard was able to embed himself within the team in a way that’s rare for writers in this industry. He was able to work directly with the level designers, the audio team and everyone else to come up with the perfect pacing for storytelling.
For Emgard, it was a dream come true — a chance to build his own universe using a foundation he already care about.
"A lot of my initial work was just to create this world from a narrative standpoint," he says. "What are these corporations? What is the Conglomerate? How does it rule? Why do people accept it? One idea would give rise to another and back and forth."
For as much as Mirror’s Edge Catalyst serves as an origin story for Faith, Emgard also approached it as a tale of the City of Glass itself. He says that through missions, incidental dialogue and more, players will form a picture of what this city is, who lives in each of its districts and how Faith’s presence there changes things.
Söderlund believes DICE has improved the plot in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst by having Emgard with the team full-time.
"The story in the first game could have been better," admits Söderlund. "This team has made a much better game from a story perspective this time around. When I played it, it’s a story I actually wanted to see more of and understand how it unfolds. I started to care about the characters in a different way than I did in the first game."
While DICE was excited to reveal the new Mirror’s Edge project to its fans in 2013, it was still at an extremely early point in development. By the time E3 2014 rolled around, the team still didn’t feel confident enough to show a lot more of the game. EA played a behind-the-scenes dev diary during EA’s press conference that year but didn’t show much new, much to the disappointment of eager fans.
By E3 2015, however, development had progressed significantly. The game had a new, final title — Mirror’s Edge Catalyst — and DICE was ready to let people outside of the studio go hands-on with the game.
Lead producer Amo Mostofi attended E3 that year and got to watch players jumping into the game with an equal mix of excitement and fear.
"When it went out there, I think I kind of went numb a little bit," he says. "It was one of those moments of like, ‘Do I really want to be here? Do I really want to see this happen?’"
Mostofi’s fears were slowly but surely eased. He saw many fans make a beeline for the Mirror’s Edge Catalyst demo as the first and most important thing they wanted to see on a packed E3 showfloor. Those fans had been waiting for this follow-up for many years, and by and large, they seemed to be happy with what they were playing.
"There are lots of expectations of how a Mirror’s Edge title should look and should sound and should play," says Odeldahl. "Almost everybody I talked to at E3 that year told me that we were doing the right thing. That felt great."
During E3 2015, EA announced that Mirror’s Edge Catalyst would release on Feb. 23 of the next year. By the end of the year, that was pushed back to May 24, with a second delay moving the game back another few weeks to June 7.
While it was frustrating to fans who’ve been waiting so long for the game, Odeldahl says the delays have been extremely useful for the team.
"We basically looked at some areas in the game and said, ‘We should improve these,’" he explains. "We got a few more months to do that, which was a great thing."
More recently, DICE and EA held a public beta for Catalyst — something that seems strange for a single-player focused game but was useful because of social elements like user-made challenges that the sequel will feature. Emgard notes his happiness with the reaction to this beta, saying there’s been "very little vitriol."
Odeldahl agrees: "As a game developer, after a while you become a bit jaded to online response. People can be a bit mean online sometimes. But we’ve been spared. People are really positive. The Mirror’s Edge community words their concerns carefully. They ask us things. There’s almost no negative vibe."
As time has crawled on and the game has neared completion, one by one, individual developers have left the project, moving onto the next big thing they’re working on at DICE. Just as the team slowly expanded from three or four main people to a larger group, it has shrunk back down as people finish whatever final things they need to work on. With the final release date now just a couple of weeks away, Emgard says he’s beginning to feel "post-project depression" alongside his excitement at finally getting Mirror’s Edge Catalyst out the door.
"There’s always this huge expectation that when you’re done, it’s going to be such a huge relief," he says. "It’s out there. You can just enjoy seeing people playing it and enjoying it hopefully and all that. Of course there’s that too. But I’m definitely also feeling this sort of emptiness. Now this is done."
One very notable person in particular is missing from the team these days: senior producer Sara Jansson, who helped put together the team and get Catalyst off the ground. Earlier this month, just weeks before the game’s release, Jansson gave birth. She has since been home on maternity leave.
Even with a newborn taking up all her time, Jansson couldn’t help but take some time to express her excitement. "I couldn’t be prouder of the team," she says. "We have been working so hard on making sure we’re doing the game justice and getting everything right.
"In a way, you can say that I have two babies seeing the light of day just weeks apart."
Even as the game is about to be released, there’s still an air of unexpectedness to Mirror’s Edge Catalyst existing — to a massive publisher like EA "taking a chance" on a sequel to a game that wasn’t a breakout hit in the first place.
"I think it’s important that we allow a game like Mirror’s Edge to exist," says Söderlund. "When you’re the size of Electronic Arts, and when you have so many big games, I look at our games catalog as a portfolio. You have to look at it almost like a movie studio would look at it. You have your blockbusters. You have your more artistic, almost indie-like titles. There’s a market for those as well, and I think the industry deserves those types of products."
Söderlund believes Mirror’s Edge Catalyst has the potential to do extremely well and to reach an even bigger audience than the first game. But he’s also realistic about it; he recognizes that it "probably won’t be a GTA in terms of audience size."
Players wanted it, though, as did the studio. And perhaps just as importantly, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst contains technology and design lessons that Söderlund believes will be useful to DICE and EA as a whole moving forward.
The very fact that we greenlit Mirror’s Edge Catalyst and that we’re moving ahead with it speaks volumes about our mindset.
"There’s a lot of learnings that, should we not build another Mirror’s Edge for various reasons — a lot of the things that we’ve done will serve as great learnings for whatever else we build," he says. "As you know, EA is pushing quite hard as a company to move into the action space. A lot of stuff like going to an open-world structure, going to a nonlinear narrative, building out characters and stories — these are things that we need to learn and perfect as a company. Sometimes, you have to look at it long-term.
"I hope that Mirror’s Edge Catalyst does extremely well. But in a world where it may or may not do well, it’s important for us to understand that everything that we do needs to be seen in the longer perspective. You can’t just look at it in isolation."
The developers at DICE echo this point from a slightly different angle. Mostofi says that Mirror’s Edge’s existence is evidence of the passion that’s alive at the developer, proof that the team is about more than just "this first-person shooter, Battlefield juggernaut." He says that even as the company has grown into a triple-A studio competing with some of the most popular franchises in the world, it has maintained the sense of being an underdog internally.
"The very fact that we greenlit Mirror’s Edge Catalyst and that we’re moving ahead with it speaks volumes about our mindset," Mostofi says. "No one is sitting there going, ‘We make one of the biggest games in the world; we know what we’re doing.’ We’ve still got to push forward and look for something different and new and fresh."
Odeldahl concurs: "We don’t want to constantly be working on the same things. We don’t want to just iterate. Sometimes you want to do something that’s completely out of left field, that scares people on the development team."
It’s become commonplace to view massive game development houses as factories built to pump out the latest mainstream sensation. For DICE, both the first Mirror’s Edge game and its long-awaited follow-up serve as evidence that the studio isn't a conveyer belt for military shooters.
And yet, where the franchise goes from here will in all likelihood be determined by sales.
"Whether or not there’s another Mirror’s Edge is going to be up to the people out there," Söderlund says. "If we can convince them that there’s a market for this, that people want to buy it, and if they tell us they want another one, then we’ll make another one. If the answer is that there wasn’t a big enough audience, it’s too difficult and too much work goes into making a game to build a game that we know people probably don’t want."
For its part, the team that worked on Mirror’s Edge Catalyst directly seems ready and eager to see the franchise grow from here. Emgard says he "got lost a little bit" in the creation of the game’s world, building dozens of potential narrative hooks to expand out from here. Mostofi is confident that the series "will have an exciting future."
Odeldahl is the only member of the team to exercise a little more caution. "We should definitely do another Mirror’s Edge," he says, before stressing, "when it’s the right thing."
He doesn’t want to forget what both games in the series have been built on so far: pushing not for more of the same, not for iteration, but for something new and surprising and different. If and when there’s a third Mirror’s Edge game, we can only hope that it continues that tradition.Design: Erika Espinoza