It’s hard to believe, but at one point, EA Sports was extremely focused on producing quality baseball games. Way before MVP Baseball was a thing, Triple Play Baseball was a series that millions of gamers flocked to. At one point in the franchise’s history, it was a consistent million-seller on the Sony PlayStation and PlayStation 2. Before that dominance, however, EA was in a different type of ballgame on the Sega Genesis and was just trying to find its footing. At one point, the publisher had MLBPA BaseballTony LaRussa Baseball and even its classic PC series, Earl Weaver Baseball all trying to grab a piece of the virtual baseball pie. But somewhere between Earl Weaver’s rise on the PC and the end of the Sega Genesis lifespan, Triple Play came into existence and set the bar high enough to warrant a litany of sequels that took the series into the PlayStation, Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64, GameCube and PlayStation 2 cycles. 

But way before the game was repackaged as MVP Baseball, the Triple Play franchise was one of the last baseball games on the Sega Genesis and was put right in the middle of a dogfight for supremacy among a plethora of contenders including RBI Baseball ’94Sega’s World Series Baseball ’96 and Frank Thomas Big Hurt Baseball. Just around the time when EA began to understand how important yearly updates were to their sports franchises and the adopting of that mentality with all of their other sports games, the brand knew it was time to get serious about baseball. Although they released Tony LaRussaSuper Baseball 2020 and MLBPA Baseball from 1992-1994, with no authentic MLB license, the games didn’t have the staying power as EA’s other games in the NBA and NHL. Although Triple Play 96 didn’t have an MLB license either, it was out to change the way baseball games on the Genesis felt by offering a slew of modes and features not found in their previous baseball games including hot and cold streaks, the ability to create minor leaguers and the best visuals of any of their prior 16-bit games based on America’s pastime.

For the game’s lead designer, Chris Taylor, this wasn’t his first rodeo in game development or baseball games. “Back in the ‘80s (May ’88 to be exact) I started in the game’s business at a company called Distinctive Software, which was purchased by EA and renamed Electronic Arts Canada,” Taylor said. “A team at the newly renamed EA Canada developed a title which is now world-famous called FIFA Soccer. After the success of that game, management was asking the question, could we duplicate that success with other franchises, and so it was, baseball was considered a potential candidate. As much as I want to tell you I was a big fan of baseball, I can’t, but they chose me to be the lead on the project because I had been the lead designer/developer on Hardball II, so I had some experience with what it takes to make a baseball game.”

That experience on Hardball II made Taylor that much more hungry to deliver, this time with Electronic Arts. That meant trying to deliver as authentic an experience as possible. “Well, the biggest thing for me is the accuracy of all the little details, and though I did okay on Hardball II, I really tried to go deeper on Triple Play,” Taylor said. “But the biggest thing was the stats engine. Baseball has so many stats it’s crazy (as you know) and I was concerned that this was something that would be a lot of work, so I had the help from Rick Smith, who was brilliant at breaking down the whole stats calculating system into what we called, ‘Pseudo Code.’ I then took his pseudo-code and converted it into C (the language we used to code most of the higher-level logic in) and it all went very smoothly. So part of that was knowing what we were getting ourselves into before we went diving in. And no, I couldn’t use the code from Hardball II, as that was the property of another publisher… which was fine, because as my coding style evolved, it wasn’t terribly great code.”

According to the game’s programmer Kevin Pickell, Taylor was the guru, the guy primed to get it all done. Although not a baseball fan himself, Pickell had a clear objective during development and stayed on task. .“Before I worked on Triple Play, I wrote the libraries (memory management, music, sound effects, sprites, tile play-field scrolling, controllers, etc.) we used on all the Sega Genesis games made at EA Canada until that point,” Pickell said. “The direction chosen for Triple Play was to essentially mirror the look and feel of FIFA, but for baseball, instead of soccer. We already had the workflow for generating the animating characters and that was essentially copied for Triple Play.”

While the animations and systems from FIFA played a key role in the look and feel of Triple Play 96, the rise of the World Series Baseball franchise on the Genesis, known for its massive hitters played just as substantial a role in creating some of Triple Play’s toughest moments in development. “I knew what needed to be done, so I just rolled up my sleeves and did it,” Taylor said. “I had a lot more help compared to Hardball II. In fact, here’s a fun tidbit…one of the most important designers and engineers from FIFA was Jan Tian, and he had offered to help with what we called, Big Batter. It’s where the batter is huge on the screen and the player swings at the ball, and all depending on the exact critical timing of the button press, places the ball onto the field. Jan wrote all that Big Batter code, which was pretty cool.”

At the end of the Genesis’ lifespan, Triple Play 96 was the last EA Sports baseball game released on the console and leveraged every ounce of power the system could muster. That, in itself, created some interesting moments during the development cycle. “Well, no question it (developing on the Genesis that late in its shelf life) was harder, but not that bad,” Taylor said. “The biggest challenge was the memory, so we had to always keep an eye on that. However, I do recall that we blew out the memory size we were allocated, so we bumped it up in the late stage of the project to the next memory tier. Oh, and in general, I actually thought to work on the Genesis was a lot of fun. I had worked on another title, Test Drive II and wrote a bunch of sprite management code in 68000 Assembly, and I was like, damn, this is awesome (68000 is a pretty powerful chip as it didn’t use segmented architecture as the 8088 did on the IBM PC).”

While Taylor admits there wasn’t any real drama during the development cycle, he did say the name of the game wasn’t clear at the start of development. “We were going to call the game, Line Drive Baseball, but apparently, someone had the legal rights to that name, and then it was going to be called Double Play Baseball, but that was taken also,” Taylor said. “So we ended up with Triple Play… the best name of all!!”

Away from that, Taylor remembers the quiet times during the crunch the most. “I’ll never forget those nights where there were no cars on the road,” Taylor said. “I think that’s the right commute time! These days in Seattle, that’s never the case, as there are always cars now.”

Something else that sticks in Taylor’s memory is the creation and addition of a mini-game many people may have missed entirely during their playtime with the game. “Not sure how many people play the game and know all the little things,” Taylor said. “One of my favorite things in the game was a game within the game called ‘Dot Racing.’ I thought that was a ton of fun and was excited about it and really wanted it to be great and not just a quick hack. My memory is fuzzy, but I recall that it turned out pretty good. You played it on the game’s Jumbotron or whatever it was called.”

But even if you missed Taylor and the team’s mini-game within the game, the game did well enough internally and externally to warrant more than a half-decade of yearly sequels on the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 era of consoles. Although not as heralded as the game’s that came later in the series, it provided the very foundation for the franchise to grow. “I think it’s special because it’s somewhat related to FIFA Soccer,” Taylor said. “Besides Jan helping out on the Big Batter, it used the same libraries as that very famous first FIFA Sega Genesis game and had the same Production team. It really wanted to be like FIFA, but I hate to say it, FIFA had magic in it, and sadly I’m not sure we could get there unless we had a true baseball lover on the team. I mean, come on, we’re a bunch of Canadians! We really wanted it to be ‘up there’ with the other EA Sports titles that were making EA famous for great sports games.”

Going on to serve as Creative Director for a plethora of other successful game series including Dungeon Siege, Age of Empires and Total Annihilation, Taylor has a lot of experiences to draw from in determining his legacy in the industry. With no regrets on Triple Play 96 however, it serves as a special time in his career. “I racked up a ton of regrets later in my career, so looking back, anything crazy that happened on that project doesn’t even make the top 10. To me, the game is a really tight, solid experience,” Taylor said. “Of course there is a lot of things we could have done better, but all things considered, it came together nicely, and ultimately when you look at the power of the Genesis, the cartridge memory back then, and the time we had in development, it was a decent game that had a lot of features packed into it.”

Patrick Hickey Jr. Patrick Hickey Jr. (319 Posts)

Patrick Hickey, Jr., is the founder and editor-in-chief of ReviewFix.com and a lecturer of English and journalism at Kingsborough Community College, in Brooklyn, New York. Over the past decade, his video game coverage has been featured in national ad campaigns by top publishers the likes of Nintendo, Deep Silver, Disney and EA Sports. His book series, "The Minds Behind the Games: Interviews With Cult and Classic Game Developers," from McFarland and Company, has earned praise from Forbes, Huffington Post, The New York Daily News and MSG Networks. He is also a former editor at NBC and National Video Games Writer at the late-Examiner.com