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Halls of EA - Sega Probe

Take a tour of the EA campus, and you're bound to encounter the collection of classic gaming consoles on display, ranging from the Amiga to the Xbox 360—all nostalgia-evoking, familiar systems except for one very unique snowflake: the "Sega Probe" (or simply, the Sprobe).

The Sprobe distinguishes itself as the only system that was created by a software publisher/developer instead of a hardware manufacturer. While it looks a lot like any old console (e.g. large and bulky), its boxy appearance has generally remained a secret to most gamers despite its significant impact in video game history. 

I recently spoke with longtime EA employee Scott Cronce, and Sprobe engineer Terry Fowler to get the skinny on Sprobe’s history. Fowler originally worked for Intel—the same company that coined the term "emulation" to describe hardware or software that would duplicate functions of another system. With a background in creating machines or software designed to work like other systems or software, it was time for Fowler to extend this concept into video games.  

The Sega Genesis (known as the Mega Drive in Japan and Europe) premiered in Japan in 1988 and became a major force in the video game industry—igniting the classic console war between it and Nintendo's Super NES. Sega had limited inventory on development hardware for its partners which, paired with the high demand, made it difficult to jump into publishing games for it. EA's challenge: how to create great Genesis games and get them to consumers without even having development hardware on a permanent basis. The basic answer: emulate it on your own.

During the period that EA had a Genesis development kit on loan before it would be lent out to other publishers, Fowler and his team—armed with knowledge of emulation and the hardware they intended to duplicate—reverse-engineered the system. Now EA had a scrappy makeshift kit that created Genesis games without having to take hardware away from Sega or other development studios. Fowler noted, “This [meant] faster game development and first to market products."

The Sprobe itself utilized an in-circuit emulator, and Fowler's team added hardware similar to the "guts" of the Sega Genesis kit to create this impressive rogue development kit. Connect this DIY kit to a programmer's Macintosh computer, and voila—a way to produce games for the Genesis. The programmer would code on the Mac which would then send the code to the Sprobe, and the Sprobe would then act like a Genesis. EA engineers also developed a battery-operated cartridge to transport the coded games from the Sprobe to Quality Assurance teams and even Manufacturing. This provided EA a way to not only develop, but also bugtest, Genesis games without official Sega hardware.

After EA had created a reliable system to develop games for the Genesis, the first title to be created using the Sprobe would ultimately turn out to one of the most important games in history: 1990's John Madden Football for the Sega Genesis. One little known fact from Madden's development: the grass was originally orange due to it being coded by a color-blind programmer. Once spotted, the grass was changed green, and we've been making sure it's that perfect shade of green ever since. The impact of John Madden Football is a whole other story for another time, but now you know that the development of Madden came about as a result of a reverse-engineered console.


The Halls of EA is a look at the people, places, and artifacts that define EA history