The People Of Polyphony 01: Norio Takama

FeaturesGran Turismo Series 25 January 6, 2016 by

Welcome to a new feature here at GTPlanet. In December 2015, Polyphony updated their website, including profiles on some of the personnel. These interviews shed some light on the people behind the scenes that make Gran Turismo what it is. We offer them here in translated form, which wouldn’t be possible without the generous efforts of community member Imari.

All images, unless otherwise noted, are care of Polyphony Digital Inc.

STAFF INTERVIEW 001: Norio Takama (Original interview here)

Moved from a game development studio to join Polyphony Digital in 1999. Involved in development from Gran Turismo 3 onwards. Handles numerical computation libraries, as well as character motion for the drivers and crowds.

The storefront of the electronics shop in my hometown was my classroom

I come from a town in Gunma. There was a small electronics store that had computers lined up near the entrance. On the way home from school, all the high schoolers would stop and play games or program. This was around the time when things like the MZ-80, PC-8000, and FM-7 were popular. At the time I was in the fourth or fifth year of primary school. I was really interested, so I used to stand behind them and watch what was going on.

One day I was playing a pachinko game, and suddenly it threw up a program screen. Somehow, just from watching I knew how to produce ASCII art in the code. I still remember the excitement that I felt when I overwrote where I thought the score was kept, and it was displayed on screen. After that, some of the older high school boys taught me BASIC, and I made some simple shooting games and the like.

The impact of Virtua Fighter

From junior high on I was very busy with club activities, student council and the like. I met a very interesting math teacher who made studying math a lot of fun, so I hardly touched computers at all. I moved to Tokyo to enter the mathematics course at Waseda University, and spent a lot of time going to watch pro wrestling, which I was really into.

When I was a child, I had met the first Tiger Mask** in person, and ever since I had been an enormous fan of pro wrestling. But when Virtua Fighter came out while I was at university, I found myself going to the arcades more and more. With my love of pro wrestling and martial arts, the way that the characters moved in the game really made sense to me.

**TL NOTE: There have been several wrestlers named Tiger Mask in Japanese pro wrestling. The first and the one that Mr. Takama is referring to was Satoru Sayama, who played the role from 1981 to 1983. Tigermask reference image provided by Imari.

A bank? Or game development?

As I was searching for a job, I found myself wondering what it was that I wanted to do. “Maybe a foreign exchange job where I could use my math skills”, was one of the thoughts that I had. I also remembered Virtua Fighter, and how much fun I had making games when I was younger. These two  ideas were both appealing, and so I applied to both banks and game development studios. I decided that I should take the first offer that I got.

In the end, I got a job at the first game developer I applied for. I worked there for about two years. My mentor joined Polyphony before I did, and they convinced me to join them at Polyphony Digital.

The human body is the same whether it’s in a fighting game or riding a motorbike or driving a car

To start with I was dealing with software tools, but a few years later we put out a motorbike demo at E3. That was where I started moving into the rider movement. Afterwards I kept working with character motion. There were many popular methods, like motion capture, or using animators to create motion, but I wanted to generate all the movements in real time.

Because Gran Turismo has so many vehicles, to record all the motions of the driver would take a lot of resources.  With the movement of the cars, I watched Akihiko Tan assemble the cars a piece at a time so that they could be simulated. So for the movement of the drivers I placed them in a traditional driving position, hands here, legs here, and so forth. Then I built up a system of how the joints could move, how the bones and muscles could move. The technique is called inverse kinematics.

The advantage of this is that once the position of all the bones is defined, it’s relatively easy to extrapolate motion from external forces. To me, the human body is the same whether it’s in a fighting game, or riding a motorbike, or driving a car. It’s an area that I continue to think about and investigate.

What makes Polyphony Digital special

After I joined Polyphony, my first thought was “At least there are a lot of people who are really good at their jobs”. The amount of knowledge that they all had was staggering. In one sense, it was quite disconcerting; at the time I didn’t understand when and how business decisions were made. But now I can see every work request and discussion that goes through the internal chat system, so I always understand what’s going on. The programmers can talk to the artists about what’s happening and any ideas they have, and vice versa.

After the earthquake in 2011, it was barely six months before we had an office running in Fukuoka, to spread our risk. “Always make the company better” and “Do what’s right for the company, right away” are both very strong sentiments within the corporate culture. A lot of the employees are married, and a lot of employees who have resigned have chosen to come back and work here again. I think these things demonstrate what sort of company it is.

How do you recruit Physics Engine Development Engineers?

The calculations for the physics engine in the game are restricted by time and resources. And all the while, the user will be adding inputs that cannot be predicted, so it’s a rather unique problem. A program that is stable at high speeds, yet realistic and conveys a good sense of balance is a must, and so experience with game development is a big plus.

On the other hand, things that aren’t possible on computers now may well be in another ten years, so I think that a good foundation in physics and mathematics as well as keeping up to date on relevant papers and articles is very important.

But look at me, I only knew mathematics. I stopped programming when I was in primary school until I started my game development job, and so I had to work really hard to overcome my limitations with regards to computers. I think that there’s a certain level of knowledge that is necessary to work here, but if you want to improve yourself then Polyphony is definitely an environment in which you can reach the very top. There has never been a time when I’ve asked a question about computers that somebody in the company hasn’t been able to answer.

Thank you to Imari for providing the translation!

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