We can still remember Advance Wars, and Fire Emblem is an ongoing series as we speak. But there is another turn-based strategy game made by Intelligent Systems, one which has failed to leave a lasting impression. Three years after its release, let us find out why Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. failed to stand out amongst the other creations of this renowned development studio.
- What is Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.?
- Reasons for writing this
- Marketing minimum
- Two months and a patch
- A test of patience
- How it started
- Closing words
What is Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. ?
Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is a turn-based strategy game for the Nintendo 3DS that was released in 2015. It was developed by Intelligent Systems, a studio that has been with Nintendo for most of the time since the company started making games. Intelligent Systems developed the Fire Emblem and Advance Wars games, both turn-based strategy games that many remember fondly. Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. has very little in common with these renowned franchises though, and instead fuses elements from other strategy games.
The gameplay concept in a nutshell: The game has no overhead view, instead up to 4 agents are controlled directly from a third person perspective, one at a time. Moving and attacking cost steam, a resource that is obtained at the start of the turn and can only be replenished otherwise using special items. The twist: while the map grid determines how far an agent can move, movement within that range is unrestricted. Players can run around and scout until a move is locked in by attacking or taking damage. Save some steam and you can attack enemies if they get too close on their turn, but they will set up ambushes as well. Maps are fully three-dimensional and combat depends entirely on sightlines and map geometry, not the distance in squares. There is no map screen at all. Vision is what the player can see from the agents’ perspective. The player must use strategy, an arsenal of firearms and explosives and some spatial reasoning to complete each map objective while a varied assortment of aliens tries to stop them. One detail of note: Each agent comes with a unique weapon, passive and one-time-use ultimate ability.
The setting for the game is bizarre even by Nintendo’s standards; In an alternate universe, Abraham Lincoln faked his death after the civil war so he could set up a secret organisation dedicated to fighting an impending alien invasion. Let that sink in for a moment. The agents that are recruited into S.T.E.A.M. are characters from (mostly) American literature and folklore. On the cover you can see Henry Fleming, John Henry and Tom Sawyer. Tiger Lily, Randolph Carter and even Dorothy and her three companions from Oz join the team. The whole game has a steampunk aesthetic, and most of the contraptions, including your weapons, run on steam. By the way, S.T.E.A.M. stands for Strike Team Eliminating the Alien Menace. To the game’s benefit, it does not take itself seriously at all. It has its own corny theme song. Cutscenes are presented as comic book panels to match the cell-shaded look. The soundtrack of the game takes a different direction, yet it stands out in the best way possible. It combines classical instruments with some synthetic guitar riffs and heavy percussion for an industrial vibe. When the aliens take their turn, you may hear some ominous… dubstep? The game has voice acting for all dialogue and by acclaimed voice actors no less. Intelligent Systems clearly set out to make a game that was unlike any of their previous creations.
Reasons for writing this
All signs point towards the game having become a commercial failure: VGChartz1 estimates sales for Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. at 220.000 worldwide. For comparison, Advance Wars (GBA) sold roughly 700.000 copies, and Fire Emblem Fates sold 1840.000. One month after launch, a rumor2 circulated that only 31.000 copies of Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. had sold (although this only included the NA region). Even more telling though, is that fact that after about two years physical copies were being sold at significantly less than full price. For a first-party game with decent reviews on average, that is a very rare occurrence. But is this game really worth remembering? I believe it is; The game’s setting, unique mechanics, the pedigree of the developers and the awful sales combine to make it a case that is so extraordinary, that it is worth looking into again. And although the game lacked some polish, I would hate to see it go down in history as Intelligent System’s greatest failure. The game does too many things right to treat it that way
If you have read the reviews, you know there are arguments to be made against Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. being a great game. Admittedly, the game is neither the most accessible nor the deepest of strategy games. None of that is related to the game’s marketing, however. Without proper marketing, even a stellar game will not be a commercial success. And the marketing for Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is defined by missed opportunities. Let us review all of the publicity the game got in chronological order.
The very first misstep was a big one; Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. was unveiled at the E3 of 2014, but it never got a proper reveal for the public. Instead, journalists at a ‘roundtable’ one day after the Digital Event got the first look at the game behind closed doors. It was entirely absent from the online presentation (Digital Event) that kicked off Nintendo’s presence at the conference. That presentation was mostly about Wii U games, and was packed with exciting announcements; Smash Bros. reveals, Splatoon, Bayonetta 2, Mario Maker… There was time for one 3DS game though, and it was Pokémon Omega Ruby / Alpha Sapphire. Why was Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. left out? There seems to be no good reason at all. Just the trailer would have been only one-and-a-half minute in a presentation that lasted over 45 minutes. Development was already very far underway at this point, so journalists at the roundtable got to see a live gameplay demo, and later the Treehouse got around to that as well. Only then did the public get its first look at the game, other than a tweet from Nintendo of America. Nintendo must have expected the journalists and the pedigree of the developers to get the hype going. In hindsight, we know that a new IP does not get those benefits, at least not for this genre. Metrics on public opinions at the time are impossible to retrieve, but the tweet that first revealed Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. to the public has different types of replies. Those made it seem like half of the respondents were expecting the Majora’s Mask remake to be unveiled at the roundtable. Some really disliked the way the game looked, which is subjective. The latter would be a recurring complaint in any comment section. In some cases, the low-poly models and bleak colour palette (for a Nintendo Game) were sometimes given as arguments.
During the 2014 Game Awards, a new trailer was shown, revealing the multiplayer mode and some new footage from the campaign. On February 14th of 2015, there was a Nintendo Direct. Its first announcement was a Fire Emblem Fates teaser (full title was unknown at the time). As usual, the second part of the presentation was the 3DS portion. The 3DS announcements were split up, with a 12 minute section about the New 3DS in the middle. The two-and-a-half minutes after that were dedicated to Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.3 And somehow they failed to make an impact. This is subjective, but Bill Trinen did not do a great job of highlighting the selling points of the game. After just 50 seconds, he talks about how you can use the C-stick on the New 3DS as well. Just under a minute into this section, Trinen moves on to the Amiibo compatibility. Their abilities are described at length, while corresponding gameplay footage is shown. In any other case, this would have been par for the course. But anyone who had not gone out of their way to watch a Treehouse segment, the dedicated website or the first trailer on Youtube would still not have had a proper introduction to Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. and its cast or core gameplay mechanics. For a brand that has no recognition, that seems like a major oversight. Given that the amiibo functionality was exclusive to the new hardware, was it really a good sales tactic? In hindsight, either the E3 presentation or the Direct should have clearly stated the highlights of the base game. It is difficult to show the quality of a turn-based game in a trailer, but there are enough flashy moments in the game from stylized cutscenes, set pieces and devastating special attacks to add more flair to the official announcements that came after the reveal trailer. That first trailer was decent enough, but as shown later in the essay the trailers were not drawing in a lot of people. During the Nintendo Direct they mostly showed gameplay cuts, but that may not have been distinctive enough because of the niche genre and lack of brand recognition. The official website for the game has no lack of flair in my opinion; it has great visual design, plenty of flavour text and brief trailers for each character, including their special attacks. All of this material required people to go look for it though, or at least click on an ad and browse. Three months before launch and Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. was leagues behind Splatoon in terms of recognition.
In terms of advertisements for the game, barely any evidence exists of marketing outside of press releases, Youtube and Twitch. The latest game trailers were used as ads on Youtube. Twitch did have an overlay themed after the game at one point. A short ad with a high-energy narration was seen on German TV, but nowhere else4. This contrasts both Advance Wars games on the DS, which did have tv ads5 in the NA region. On a side note, the Japanese ads for Advance Wars: Dual Strike were a bit more light-hearted in their depiction of the military theme than the NA ad, although both were intended to be humorous. Even though Advance Wars: Days of Ruin was not sold in Japan, it outsold Dual strike by at least 200.000 copies1. There was still an audience in the west for military-themed tactics games, and the marketing for those games evidently worked.
Back to Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. In the months before launch, nothing extraordinary was done for a game which had failed to create a buzz despite its premise and the pedigree of the developers. The Nintendo Minute series skipped Code Name S.T.E.A.M. entirely. It could be argued that the game was only marketed towards more hardcore gamers, but that goes against the idea of it being a strategy game for those who shy away from games with a top-down perspective. (See also: How it started) It also dooms the game to far less potential buyers. Two scenario’s come to mind: Either the marketeers had no idea what to do with this game due to the novelty, genre or the unexpected lack of hype up until that point, or they believed that online advertising would be enough and did not have faith in advertising on tv.
While metrics on the views on Youtube do not indicate any causes, it goes a long way of showing just how far behind Code Name S.T.E.A.M. was when compared to other marketing campaigns. (Figures 2, 3 and 4) Splatoon was chosen because it was a new IP in the same year, and Fire Emblem Fates was chosen because it is a strategy game on the same system. (Please take note of the axis scales.)
Trailer viewcounts may not reflect how often ads or live broadcasts were viewed. Noteworthy data points:
- For Code Name S.T.E.A.M.; the Game Awards trailer, Lincoln trailer and April update trailer received far less views that the most popular trailers. Each of the trailers shows some different content though.
- Fire Emblem Fates: Other than the initial teaser and E3 reveal, none of trailers got even close to a million views.
- Splatoon (Wii U) got a staggering amount of views for trailers related to major announcements (Reveal, single player, Direct). It shows that the marketing for Splatoon was on point from the very start.
- Like and dislikes were also compared, but none of the reviewed videos had disproportionate likes or dislikes compared to each other.
While legitimate complaints about the game will be discussed, the key point of this part is that Code Name S.T.E.A.M. had gained so little recognition leading up to release, as reflected in the low viewcounts, that only gameplay of unrivalled quality would be able to change its fate. Whatever the cause, the marketing campaign had failed.
One final point is the NA-exclusive pre-order bonus at Gamestop. It was a pin shaped like Majora’s Mask from the Legend of Zelda franchise. There is absolutely no canonical connection between Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. and Majora’s Mask. So then why was this used as the pre-order bonus? It certainly would not have scared away any potential customers, but it may be an indication of Nintendo’s attitude in regards to Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. Was it a last resort or just a meaningless promotional tie-in? With Nintendo, it is impossible to understand their thought process sometimes.
There is one important counterpoint I should include; Being a strategy game, it was most likely going to have a niche audience. The comic book visuals and the third-person perspective were meant to appeal to a broader audience6, but we know now that the game is not quite as easy to understand as Advance Wars. It was never reasonable to expect Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. to be a hit like Splatoon. It would be more reasonable to say that the best case scenario was a sales number similar to the Advance Wars games.
Two months and a patch
The most obvious explanation for the game’s lukewarm reception should not be ignored; The slow enemy turns. Almost every review lists this complaint. Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. released on the 13th of March in the NA region in 2015. Two months later, it released in Japan (14th of May), and in the EU (15th of May). Coinciding with these later dates, a patch was released for the game that would include a button that makes the enemy turn go by twice as fast. (Thrice as fast on New 3DS). Problem solved, right? Not if you consider that the NA region accounts for half of sales of Fire Emblem Fates and roughly two-thirds of sales of most Advance Wars titles1. In other words, the majority of the target demographic had received the worst version of the game. It seems unlikely that one trailer for the update on Youtube and some coverage by games journalists about that could make other regions forget about the reviews from the NA region. Most likely, the patch was not planned until the reviews came in, and was quickly developed before the game hit the shelves in the EU. Given that the complaints about slow turns were ubiquitous among reviewers, it should not have been a surprise though. Maybe the developers did not think much of it. We will return to that topic later.
This launch window was not without its own share of issues though. Splatoon launched on the 29th of May, and ads for that game were plentiful. The Japanese could play Fire Emblem Fates on the 25th of June in 2015, not even two months after Code Name S.T.E.A.M. came out. At the very least, it means that the game was developed by a smaller team at Intelligent Systems while most of the staff worked on making and polishing Fire Emblem Fates to perfection. It may have also doomed Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. to compete with other Nintendo games for attention and the money of gamers, at least in Japan.
A test of patience
Did everything come down to marketing, the launch window and the patch? To be honest: it would still not be the full story. While the game has intuitive controls and core mechanics, it still has some rough edges that only fans of the genre may have been able to overcome or tolerate. Enemy turns are not interactive: You can only slightly move the camera around from an agent’s perspective. If most of the enemies on the map are not aware of you, the player will not get to see or do anything meaningful. The game’s moderate difficulty adds to the frustration, forcing inexperienced players to go through the slow-paced stages again after failing. On one hand, scenarios can spiral out of control after a bad turn (much like in X-COM). On the other hand, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. gives players several ways to mount a comeback. Turning the tides with ultimate abilities after being surrounded was what made the game fun, in my opinion. Also, a strategy game that is too easy is not fun to play.
If you do end up struggling, the game has a good checkpoint system but does a poor job of explaining it. Using a checkpoint not only saves your progress to come back to after shutting down, you can revert to that save state from the pause menu as much as you like. You may also restart the map with the option to pick different agents or equipment. If you press ‘return to title screen’, you can bookmark the session without a checkpoint just like in Fire Emblem and Advance Wars. It is a confusing name for an essential feature. Pressing ‘return to Liberty’ instead means you have to start that set of maps again. Although text shows up to explain this while asking for confirmation, would you press these buttons if you did not know what they did beforehand? Checkpoints can also revive agents before saving the game, at a cost of 100 points. There are several checkpoints in each map, although buying a revival more than a few times is usually not affordable as the costs increase. Saving is free though, which means that players that look for the checkpoints can save themselves from losing a lot of progress in one fell swoop. It seems like a small detail but players and reviewers may have been more at ease if they knew that penalties for failure are minimal.
Personally, I think Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is a great game for fans of the genre, but not for those looking for a casual experience with a good story. Plenty of reviewers found it worth their time though. On the other hand, Polygon’s reviewer7 could not be bothered to get past mission 4-2 due to repeated stuns from evasive Nettlers and had to ask his boss if he could quit playing. In his defence, the game never tells you that stun can be cured with any healing. That and the fact that Nettlers can only stun one agent per turn make the mission far less intimidating, once you catch on to these facts. As hard as Nettlers are to deal with, they only appear in a few other levels and then the player can get the right tools to counter them. What does occur frequently, is that some missions will deploy waves of aliens on later turns to punish players who rely too heavily on defence, which can come across as a mixed message.
The difference between a diamond-in-the-rough and a mediocre game is a subjective one, but what is the consensus? Metacritic8 is the best metric available. See graph section. For both regions, the average review score is 73. The median score in the NA region was 80 and the median in the EU region was 75. The NA region had access to the unpatched version of the game, which apparently did not significantly affect review scores. User reviews on Metacritic are not included in the graph but paint a similar picture, with 24 positive, 5 mixed and 3 negative. (With a score of 75 and up being positive, and lower than 50 being negative.)
The best explanation for the patch not affecting review scores is not one about reason. The problem was not that enemy turns took too long, it was that they felt slow. This is still a valid complaint though.
The slowest start
The demo of the game could and should have been the redeeming factor in the marketing campaign. It lets you play the tutorial, the three maps of mission one, and then one map from mission two. It takes inexperienced players a while to complete it, which is usually a good thing for a demo. The issue? Mission one is by far the most boring part of the entire game. Players have only two agents to work with, each with just one mode of attack. These maps are mostly flat and they all feature no more than two enemy types. The demo could have contained different levels, and the full game would not suffer if either 1-2 or 1-3 was cut entirely. Unlocking ultimate abilities and sub weapons at the start may also have made the first mission more interesting. From what I can tell, a more exciting demo would have made a significant difference, although the question remains if enough 3DS owners ended up trying it in the first place. Perhaps improving the pacing of the early mission would have increased review scores as well, although this a very subjective criterium.
There are signs that the game was rushed to completion towards the end of its development. Agent models have no animated hands, and their hands always look like they are holding a gun even in cutscenes. The cutscenes having less animation is mostly due to the comic book aesthetic, but the models fail to impress most of the time. The voice acting is top notch though. Players that make it to the endgame can consistently run into glitched A.I. The ‘Dreadnought’ mini boss never lowers its defences if the player triggers the spawn of another one, which makes these fights very frustrating without a stunning weapon. During the final mission, a similar interaction makes the Dreadnoughts that guard the final door use their shockwave attack every turn. This takes up time and deals a lot of damage to their allies in the same room. The Agents are not even close to that room when this group of enemies spawns, so this A.I. behaviour has to be an unintended interaction. Crashes can occur under very specific circumstances. One of my own complaints is the imbalance of some equipment in the multiplayer mode, as well as some of its maps that favour camping. And of course, the patch with the fast forward and possibly other improvements under the hood was two months late. Given the existence of the other issues, it is plausible that the fast forward option was planned, but had to be postponed to fix other problems. And remember, the development of Fire Emblem Fates would have split up the workforce at Intelligent Systems for a large part of the development of Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. Maybe the game was suffering from lots of small issues only months before the last major deadline. It would explain why it lacks the polish we have come to associate with Nintendo games.
To summarize, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. failed to make an impact because of three key reasons: Its marketing was subpar in terms of where and how it was revealed and advertised, resulting in very low brand recognition leading up to the release. It released in the NA region before a major update improved player experience while other Nintendo games may have taken its share of attention. And finally, the slice of the game that was served up in the demo failed to show the more interesting scenarios of the game. Review scores were mixed but good on average so their effect is debatable. A common thread here is that the strengths of the core game were never the main things that stood out to the public. For a game with good critical reception on average but awful sales, it is easy to imagine that different decisions would have led to more success.
Why things happened the way they did may never come to light. Was a niche game just that hard to market without the power of hindsight, or was overconfidence to blame? The most standout part of the promotion was a pre-order bonus related to an entirely different franchise, so something was definitely off. Were the developers pressured into finishing the game in a state they knew was insufficient, or did they fail to consider that casual players might want better pacing? All of this happened despite the pitch getting praise from higher-ups at Intelligent Systems (see also: How it started). The all-star cast of voice actors and ridiculous premise point towards confidence and passion during development, at least at first. But that does not change the fact that Fire Emblem Fates shared much of its development schedule with Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. The best clues are the numerous conflicting marketing decisions and design elements: The game was meant to appeal to newcomers to the genre yet the end product did not quite have that appeal. One more question then: why is this the one and only Nintendo game of this console generation to not have its rough edges polished to perfection? A full-priced title at that.
Let us assume that either Intelligent Systems would ensure that enough long-time staff were present on the team to ensure that the game would meet high standards of quality, which seems reasonable for a Japanese company with that much collective experience. Also assume that Nintendo would ensure plenty of quality control as well, including playtesting. Despite all this, it was the public opinion at the end of it all that moved the developers to patch the most recurrent complaint to some degree. Nintendo is no stranger to delaying games, so ultimately blaming Fire Emblem Fates for diverting valuable time and money is not the answer.
At this point, I have one hypothesis left; We know that critics were divided on how good the game really was. We have reviewed the conflicting elements in the design and marketing of the game. Perhaps this game caused an unspoked division amongst those involved. Not like real tensions or drama, but professional disagreements on what elements to focus on. In that sense, some playtesters may have loved the game, while others commented on many of the problems all at once (while some bugs may still have been present). Just like the division among reviewers. Surely the developers had no shortage of passion, but were ultimately not able to change circumstances unrelated to software. The lacklustre E3 and Direct showings of this game, the launch window, the patch, the slow opening; they could all be products of compromises that pleased no one in particular. At last, there is a nuanced story grounded in corporate culture. Is it true? That can never be proven, sadly. I doubt Nintendo would ever speak out about these matters.
How it started
Thanks to a few interviews on record, some key points in the conception of Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. and its development can be pieced together. Surprisingly, the setting was the first piece of the puzzle. Paul Patrashcu, creative director of the game, stated that it started with the idea of ‘Steampunk Civil War’ during an internal pitch discussion.6 When the game was ready to be pitched to Nintendo, it made a very good impression on Hitoshi Yamagami, long-time producer for Nintendo.9 He pushed the creation of a new IP, believing it would be a waste to rebrand the concept under an existing franchise.
Art director Takako Sakai infused the character art with her love for Silver Age comics. In an interview with the Japanese Nintendo Dream, Sakai talks about how the art direction changed.10 The game was initially going to look as much like a comic book as possible, with in-game models sporting halftones and flat colours much like the official artwork (See official website for examples). During early playtesting, it became clear that this look did not mesh well with 3D gameplay. Playtesters felt sick and could not perceive any depth without stereoscopic 3D. The sharp contrasts, halftones and other elements were reserved for (assets for) in-game cutscenes. ‘Mellow lines‘ and a softer colour scheme were used to make the game easier on the eye.
The enemies were designed with a Lovecraftian theme, but also with some insectoid features. Sakai jokingly said during the Play Nintendo Roundtable that she wanted to ‘motivate’ Patrashcu to fight them harder, as he strongly dislikes bugs.11 Patrashcu stated that there were several elements that would help the game appeal to those who often stay away from strategy games.4 By removing the mini map and menus, the game would be less abstract and easier to understand. Patrashcu also thinks that games like Fire Emblem are similar to puzzle games in that problem solving is linear. Code Name: S.T.E.A.M., then, would be more similar to shooter games: “Shooters are nonlinear — you encounter problems in the map and then address them. We wanted to bring this nonlinear problem solving into a turn-based format.” By non-linear problems, he may refer to making decisions on the fly as opposed to using the same logic for every map. He also mentioned the popularity of the shooter genre.
3. The early 2015 Nintendo Direct (with a timestamp)
9. https://youtu.be/T7sJ8pK24H8 Code Name S.T.E.A.M. Stage Demo – E3 2014 (Interview with creative director Paul Patrashcu by Danny from Gamespot) Note: 6,9 k views, music sounds different from the final version.
11. https://youtu.be/VnOX0bEZcRk E3 Play Nintendo Roundtable (E3 2014 reveal highlights)
a. Note: Clips from the reveal behind closed doors at the 2014 E3. Basic mechanics were explained, and some laughs were had.
b. “…the sound you’re hearing is the English language buckling under the weight of that pun.”
If you made it this far, thank you so much for reading this! I will never forget about Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. It failed as a commercial product but succeeded as a strategy game as far as I am concerned. Ironically, this middle ground and the genre is exactly why very few people will bother to talk about it. It is not a meme, not a masterpiece and not a disaster, so not even the most dedicated of Youtubers have bothered to dig it up, even amongst hardcore fans of Advance Wars and Fire Emblem. Such is the nature of social media. My only regret is that I lack the network to spread this story on my own.
I do not think we will ever see more of this franchise. I hope that Intelligent Systems will make some other new strategy game at some point, or rework the Advance Wars formula to look good in 3D. I like Fire Emblem, but that franchise will get stale at some point if they release one every two years.