Unfortunately, most “journalists” who get the chance to interview Kazunori Yamauchi are largely clueless about the current state of the franchise. As a result, they ask the same questions to which the answers don’t really matter, delivered with the same rabid, impatient schoolboy mentality that seems to plague many people on the Internet these days. Needless to say, while this interview method can provide some sensational headlines, it does nothing to connect with the man or the company behind Gran Turismo. That’s what makes this interview with Xavier Ocampo, Japanese correspondent at MeriStation, so incredibly refreshing and insightful.
Xavier, who has a long history of friendship with Yamauchi-san, offers rare, personal impressions of his time at Polyphony Digital – all while providing us with much more information about the development status of Gran Turismo 5 than anyone who has gone before. Indeed, a quick skim of the article already revealed a “secret” GT5 trailer. The only problem, of course, is that MeriStation is a Spanish-language site, making Xavier’s full work inaccessible to many international GT fans unless they wanted to sift through an awkward machine translation. To help out, GTPlanet user Tenacious D smoothed out the rough edges, offering up the text in a much more accessible format. It’s long – 4,743 words, to be exact – but after reading it you’ll have a much better understanding of both and Gran Turismo 5 and Yamauchi-san. Thank you, Xavier, for this wonderful look inside Polyphony Digital.
Our correspondent in Japan, Xavi Ocampo, returned to interview Kazunori Yamauchi the creator of the quintessential driving franchise on PlayStation, Gran Turismo. We got a tour of the facilities of Polyphony Digital, and the creator talked about his new project, Gran Turismo 5.
With the passing of a year, as has become my custom, I interviewed Kazunori Yamauchi, the father of Gran Turismo. I never call him by his surname, as usual here in Japan. Rather, I address him by the nickname of “sensei” (teacher or master). In spite of his legendary Japanese education, he never ascribes this title to himself, though it always brings a smile to his face when I address him that way. Over the years, very few journalists would have the chance to speak with this man as friends would discuss subject of cars and video games.
As usual before the interview, Kazunori Yamauchi prepared us for a tour of the facility preceded by a presentation of Gran Turismo 5, the new creation of the master which in his words will take the driving simulation to new heights. Of course, the sensei is never satisfied.
I make a point to comment that Yamauchi is the typical genius who is at his own lofty level. When you talk to him you realize it. In the midst of a normal conversation with the teacher there are certain details that suggest that he knows what he is talking about; you are absolutely convinced of this and that no one can say differently on the subject. Furthermore, he doesn’t push any unfounded opinions, he won’t lead you on or bluff; you feel fully convinced that he speaks with authority, leaving you to listen in silence. He is so respected by the Japanese industry that no one has anything negative to say about him. Not a bad word in the press either. And you know this is not the fear of offending some celebrity or prima donna. It represents the respect he has earned during the last decade as one of the pillars of Japan’s video game world.
It is hard to relate my “adventure” in the Polyphony facilities, an adventure that is always new to me, always lets me discover new things, new areas in which I had not noticed before and that allow me to convey a more fully what this business both for those working within and for industry in general.
The day started well. Just after crossing the entrance to the facility I came across the sensei. His initial look of surprise turned into a typical Japanese bow and the narrowing of Western hands. We always welcome each other in this manner. Do not ask me why; we have done so since our first meeting. And I know he does this with few others, as he has told me.
After a brief and informal conversation in Japanese to catch up (Yamauchi understand English well enough, but dare not speak it), I indicated that we should proceed to the reception where the demonstration was held and confirm the details to the tour press. “Has this been much trouble?” I asked as he walked away.
“I do not know you that well, Xavi,” he replied smiling. But he looked tired, very tired. The dark circles were clearly visible, as well as a certain thinness in his body, indicating sleepless nights and night-time work in order to give birth to his baby, Gran Turismo 5.
Once equipped with my journalist’s arsenal, we were ushered into the conference room for the presentation. A mythical room where the staff draw the guidelines, action plans, the road map in Polyphony Digital. When you enter, you can almost hear the echoes of all the meetings held there over the years. The speeches, shouts, laughter, emotions linger, something special floating in the atmosphere of this room about 15 by 10 meters with a high ceiling, tall, like the rest of the facilities.
The scale of the place is because Polyphony is located in a former factory building, and parts of it still remain. When you look at the high ceiling, you still see remnants of the factory in the form of tubes in the light and large beams. Obviously everything has been refurbished to create the right atmosphere for the development work and creation. But it is curious to note the clear difference between what you see at ground level and what you see when you raise your eyes. The first time you realize this, you cannot help but smile.
Once in the room, we sat at a table set up in the form of inverted “U”. Yamauchi asked me to sit in the first chair near the head group, consisting of his assistant, translator and public relations. This has been the case for years, and these honors are greatly appreciated. Once all seated, we were told we could take pictures during the presentation and recording video, but we could not do the same during the video of Gran Turismo 5. “I wonder why?” I thought to myself. As if reading my mind, Yamauchi said earnestly: “It turns out that you have a surprise prepared for you. The trailer you’ll be able to see at the end of the presentation is not the same as the one for Tokyo Game Show. It’s new. No one outside of these facilities has seen it. There are new things. “ “We started well,” I think to myself. It’s just so worth being there.
Yamauchi began to speak, first concerning the portable version of Gran Turismo, GTPSP. The first thing mentioned is that it was a challenge to develop something as big as a GT for a machine so small. They had to redesign many aspects of the game, and come up with new methodologies to take advantage of the technology of the handheld. It is this aspect highlighted in the ad-hoc mode in which the opponents play against each other in the same space, or “Party,” which can compete online with other gamers worldwide via a free application that is download on PS3.
He also said he was particularly proud that the modeling of the cars comes from the PlayStation 3 version and not previous versions. Clearly this aspect has been simplified so that PSP can represent them on screen, but that’s the only change. All details are there, even the interiors.
Another aspect was the players said that since the first chapters of Gran Turismo, they no longer have as much time to play. Life has taken away much of the leisure time they once enjoyed. Yamauchi said it is these fans who defined the deciding game dynamics of Gran Turismo PSP. Now it will be faster to get new cars or progress through the game. That’s without taking away one iota, he said, of the spirit that has made the franchise famous. In addition, we can exchange vehicles with the game on PS3. He also mentioned the fact that this version can be played anywhere is an advantage over the home console.
Once the review of the portable version was out of the way, it was time to focus on the star, the game that so many fans are awaiting, Gran Turismo 5. The first piece is obviously the release date in Japan. March 31, 2010. Then the master spoke quickly to stifle possible questions on other markets and said there was still no dates set for them. Amidst laughter, the representative of Sony Europe was passed this hot potato, which confirmed this aspect and would say no more. Something is cooking, it was clear. However, no one was satisfied that such a simple issue was dodged so blatantly.
Yamauchi then went on to reel off a string of various aspects of game development that have caused the fans to suffer bitterly through such lengthy delays. Nearly all belonged to the technical aspect of Gran Turismo 5, due to the proverbial search for perfection in which the sensei is famous for worldwide.
And then it was time for the detailed figures. In the final game will be over 950 cars and 20 circuits. Various configurations of these increase the total to more than 70 tracks. How different from those 178 vehicles and 11 circuits of the first version of the game that started it all, I thought to myself. And especially, the difference between the two versions in the case of polygon count. Unlike, for example, the time constraints which forced the development team to reduce the 650 cars of Gran Turismo 2 for PlayStation to just over 150 for Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec for PS2. For reference, consider this: the last game for the PS2, GT4, had more than 700 cars and 51 race courses.
Yamauchi also pointed out the benefits of the new physics that has been applied to the game. Everything in this aspect has been created from scratch, from the reactions of the cars to the routes to the deformation and damage in the body. Yes there will be deformation and damage, something requested by the fans and has been present in other games of the genre. But the stubbornness of the Japanese maker has been delayed until now because, in his words, there wasn’t sufficient technology before to represent damage faithfully and realistically on screen.
In another vein, we also discussed the balance that had to be constantly juggled in the development of Gran Turismo. On the one hand, an easy game anyone can play, and other, the harsh realism of simulation. According to Yamauchi, both must be present in a game of this nature, but it is difficult to combine in an elegant and convincing way. He said that within the first 20 seconds of first contact with the game, you can see that something has changed. You can feel that balance. He also told us that the demo version that was installed on both the Tokyo Game Show and the booths present at the premises of the company lacked the latest damage build. It is a feature in which they are still working on, car to car. Just thinking about it makes you giddy.
As for the new cars, hybrids will be included. Also present for the first time are legendary brands like Lamborghini and Bugatti. In addition, there are cars from NASCAR and World Rally. Speaking of NASCAR, Yamauchi noted that the deformation and damage in these high-speed races will be absolutely amazing and true to life, with turns, spins, rollovers, and so on. We will have to see to believe.
Then he showed us a look at another set of game features that he says make Gran Turismo what is today, a reference in the world of driving simulations. Arcade and GT Modes are the same as previous versions, but taken to the next generation. That is, new graphics, new physics, new details. In the shop there will be many accessories to improve your cars. The master was particularly proud of this facet of the game. He commented that we can change almost every imaginable piece of the vehicle, not just the typical sections of the engine, brakes, etc.
The online mode will have full support. The development team has focused a lot on this. There will be private rooms where you can connect with other players and tournaments closed set, for example. With regard to the Photo Mode, Yamauchi told us that this feature from Gran Turismo 4 has been improved greatly. It can take pictures at any moment of the race, as well as specially prepared settings. We were reminded that the improvement in the modeling (both circuit and car) will thus be a delight for fans. On the technical side, he said that the photos have a resolution of 8 megapixels.
One of the new aspects of the game, GT TV, was also discussed by Yamauchi. In this mode, you can watch various special shows concerning cars and motorsports in high definition. There are two types of content; original and licensed. In this network will accommodate car and racing news, the testing of new cars, to Yamauchi’s own commentary on the world of driving.
After the lecture, the lights went out to reveal in all its splendor the unpublished trailer that no one outside those walls had seen. It was a moment of excitement because, obviously, everyone wanted to see the deformation and damage.
The video began with a street circuit and with electronic music in the background. Then we saw the cars, especially new ones going full speed around the track, what Gran Turismo is known for. We saw cars from NASCAR, Rally, Lamborghinis and Bugattis. We saw the pits in full and frenetic action. The images came from the replay mode. There were cars running at night. The modeling was clearly at the level expected since GT5 Prologue. And finally we saw the first deformation and cracks on cars. There were a few shouts of excitement among those present. There was a short but intense second collision. For lack of a better word, awesome.
We also saw a Ferrari with a big city in the background. The camera rose to give a more global perspective. The video ended. The truth is that we were left wanting much more. It was a little short, but intense. When the trailer began, the media burst into applause. Yamauchi confessed that they are still working on the night mode to make it as realistic as possible. Not a further word on damage. “I’ll ask after the interview,” I thought to myself.
And with that, the presentation ended. Then, Yamauchi-sama invited us to follow him on a tour of the facilities. Quite an honor, obviously one we would not turn down. And there we were, accompanied by the proud father of the child.
Touring the facilities
The offices were empty. There were only a few employees, counted on the fingers of one hand, undoubtedly working on backlog matters. It was the day of Tokyo Game Show, and is usually granted for such time off as the staff needed.
The first thing he showed was a shelf where he kept as treasures a series of milestones in the race (pun intended) of himself and Polyphony Digital. From the cover of their first game, the colorful Motor Toon Grand Prix, no relation to the Gran Turismo series, and prizes awarded to the company in numerous events, through racing trophies obtained by the master himself. All were a source of pride to Yamauchi, who posed smiling in front of the display of recognition to his work.
Later inside the work offices, we stopped in front of a panel on which were placed a series of “family photos” of the development team. Photographs portrayed the teams from the first Gran Turismo to the last. And we could see not only the evolution in the faces of the members but also the significantly increased staff who have worked for the company. Not surprisingly, in the latest chapter in the saga, hundreds of people have been employed for several years.
Yamauchi then showed us the server room. Impressive mainframes, large storage capacity and the latest and fastest computers available are used to bring their dreams to life. These machines work 24 hours straight and are in a glass room precisely cooled and ventilated. Yamauchi told us that they rent some of these marvels of technology to universities and research centers to assist in their calculations. He also emphasized the crucial role they have played in the development of new physics in Gran Turismo 5. “Without them, it would have been impossible to reach the levels we have achieved,” he said.
Then the master took us to the section where the cars are modeled. On every desk were dozens of scale models of all sorts of vehicles. Many vehicles, most of them dismantled to the core, with all its pieces laid out around them. They ranged from models that fit in a hand to others which were quite massive, and all designed with great detail and care. A curiosity that I immediately noticed was that many of them were red. A synonym of speed, no doubt.
At one of the desks, there was a guy touching up details on the complex model of a Ferrari. It was a delight to see him work, slightly altering the model in three dimensions using high tech design tools. Yamauchi said that within the total time of game development, modeling cars has consumed 60 percent of available resources. Without doubt, they have wanted to give this issue top priority, and it was revealed in the space occupied by the modeling division, well over half the total team.
Right next to this section was one of the most intriguing chambers of all the facility: the rest and repose area, set aside for the relaxation of the intrepid creators. In it I saw everything, from comics to Japanese and international music CDs. There was also a small gym where employees burn calories (or stress, who knows) between-session work. Sofas, a small dining room, indoor plants, books, music instruments… a myriad of items and services to provide distraction from the daily grind. Yamauchi told us that during the day almost no one used it. I suppose it’s the Japanese custom of, “What will they say if they see me resting instead of working?”
The question that struck me immediately to mind was, “What about night?” Apparently, at night it is used the most, but rarely with more than two or three people. Now and then would be a small birthday party or informal meeting, but not lately. Yamauchi told us it is used very little, now. Moreover, he said that in pre-launch period (about 6 months before the date, which they are now entering into) there no rest. Many employees bring their sleeping bags and pajamas for the night at the office. A very Japanese custom, incidentally.
Yamauchi does not like talking too much about this aspect of the project. I remember how in an interview I did in 2004 I had to shoehorn a statement on overnight stays. He told me that by law, Polyphony Digital facilities can not accommodate a bedroom (I wonder why the NHK broadcasting station where I work, it does have, but that’s another story). And I remember like it was yesterday when his rascal side emerged, urging me to secrecy, and showed me a bedroom in the building. A bedroom that was not there. A room I never saw. Nope, not a bedroom…
Then we move on to other sections of the star: the modeling of the circuits. A lot of tourists work here. And I say this because several of its members have traveled around the world to make on-site tours for all real circuits for the game, scavenging every detail. Yamauchi said half seriously, half jokingly that often the team would quit a vehicle run to look closely at every single detail that from the car were unseen. The texture of the pavement, plants around the circuit. Everything was thoroughly analyzed. Excessive? Maybe. Obsessed with detail? Extremely. And I really do not think it was a joke when he said that, since he gave me a look at some photos of the paving of one of the circuits to which it referred. Photos taken very, very closely.
Just then came the story of the day. While we were listening to the sensei’s dissertations, I noticed the presence of a woman. Quite attractive indeed. By turning my head a few degrees to see the rest of colleagues from the media, I could see that they also had “detected” the presence of the employee. Moreover, it appeared that nobody was paying attention to Yamauchi any more. All had their eyes fixed on the girl. It seemed so funny that I couldn’t fight down a laugh. Absolutely innocent, I swear. It was all so hilarious. My companions immediately understood the reason for my laughter, as well as Yamauchi. Being nobody’s fool, he told us, “You can take pictures and record video if you want.” Although he did not specify whether it was the girl who had to immortalize, all ran like a pack of wolves stalking their prey. She immediately saw that she was the center of attention and posed very nicely (and with some embarrassment) in the middle of her work. This went on for several minutes until Yamauchi said, “I think that is enough, gentlemen.” And on our way we went.
The last visit was the department of physics. A real mess of papers, dismantled car models, electronic whiteboards, erasable media, more paperwork and even action figures. It was chaos, but a controlled chaos. One had the feeling that every employee in the section knew where I was until the last post-it, and I could see it in their faces. This was the area of the company with more presence of workers. And had the most activity although, as I said, in theory they had the day off. They seemed to take their job seriously.
Yamauchi is especially pleased and proud of the work of this department. Not surprisingly, as was said, the people obsess over physics formulas that determine the behavior of car accidents. The damage and deformation. The jewel in the crown of Gran Turismo 5, jealously guarded until the end. Obviously we could not see much because of the secrecy which enshrouds this section, but what I saw impressed me greatly.
And with that ended the tour of the facilities. As much as I do this tour every year, I always discover another secret, or some personality trait in Yamauchi that I had overlooked. It was time the interview with the “sensei.” Time to relax. A conversation between friends about good and evil. About the good and bad of Gran Turismo. About good and bad of the teacher as a person.
The time had come. Yamauchi was sitting on a couch located in one of the demonstration areas of the company. I just opposite, on another couch, anxious to talk with the sensei. And yes, the public relations monitor the damn time. But hey, it was his job, no questions asked. In addition, we have gone to continue the conversation in front of a good paella (rice dish). But that’s another story.
And we began.
What aspect of the final product are you most satisfied with?
Obviously I cannot stay only with one, because it was the fruit of hard work by many people spread over many departments. And I respect, admire and appreciate the work of each. But if I had to decide, perhaps I would get the “feeling” in the wheel while I play. The result is a new experience, a new development.
How long did it take to develop the game?
It took about 5 years. But to put that in perspective, it also took the first Gran Turismo five years to be created. What that tells us that this is more or less the amount of time required to make a product at this level.
A personal question. What is your favorite chapter of the series?
Of course, I have a special fondness for the original, Gran Turismo on PlayStation. We spent almost five years working from dawn to dusk and sleeping in the office, and I still have the emotions of that day inside me. Yes, you can say I have a deep affection for that game. But the most difficult to develop was Gran Turismo 2, the qualitative and quantitative leap that meant at the time.
In the first game we had a limit of time to develop, but because of the success of GT1, we set a departure date for GT2 fixed, unchanging. At that time we did not know if we would take 2 years, 3 years to develop. I really had no idea. We had set the bar very high. What we did in the time that we had received and what they really wanted to do, were things so different that it was like being literally between a rock and a hard place, life and death. We had to work to the limit. There were many times when my heart seemed to say, “I will quit.” It was very stressful. And I can say that has not changed much, even now. It’s something you have to devote your life, body and soul to do well.
Speaking of which, from the outside it seems that Gran Turismo is your life, and you treat and speak of it as your own son. Is that so?
Very true, and if we continue to develop games in the series, it is because we have fun doing it. And yes, if we look back we’ve lost things along the way because of our dedication to these games, but was it worth it? Sure.
Your great love of cars is well known. Is that the main reason you created and developed Gran Turismo, a game that is always seeking perfection in the simulation?
Yes, one reason is of course my love of driving. I think driving is a wonderful experience and I wish to share it. But another reason is that I want users to spend a good time playing, essentially.
Have you had or have any kind of pressure from Sony in any aspect of the game including launch dates, content, etc?
Not in content, but really the pressure, if we can call it that, of the delivery dates are sometimes difficult to bear.
I remember in an earlier interview you showed me your business card as a Sony employee, and told me that it had no meaning for you as you had virtually no say in the governing board. That the company was all that mattered. What is your relationship with Sony?
The most important people in my life and close work are of course the employees of Polyphony. We are like a family. On the other hand, some people at Sony helped me, and help them grow professionally also. And those people, my work and my devotion I’m happy to give all I can.
Changing to PSP, the analysis I have read so far on Gran Turismo PSP give grades no higher than 8 out of 10 on average. “They talk a good game but not a juegazo.” Any comment on this?
I understand the point of view of this analysis perfectly, don’t misunderstand me on that. Obviously, when a user plays Gran Turismo, they expect a near perfect experience. That’s the reputation that the series has earned over the years. One of the big problems that we faced in creating Gran Turismo PSP was the small size of both the screen and the memory of the machine. From the beginning, we knew that we would not be able to develop a game to match their console cousins, so we had to redesign everything to fit PSP, and I think it was a very good redesign. But I understand for people who have had the experience of playing Gran Turismo on a big screen, thinking, “Oh, I wish there was something or other in this portable version too.”
This game has been designed from the ground up to be something different. If you expect the same thing, it really lets you down a bit. But if you look at from the point of view of the new design, with ad-hoc modes to four players or the party to play online, you’ll see a product that is well thought out and with a good finish. We are very careful in these special features of the handheld game.
Finally, we discuss the deformation and damage in Gran Turismo 5, a burning issue. Gran Turismo has always been known to seek perfection in all aspects; the visuals, the driving experience, and so on. Can we also expect perfection in accidents and consequent damage to vehicles? Banish all doubt.
I’ll only say one thing. Our team of engineers did not want to do something that has already been seen in other games. No. I wanted something completely different and new.
Yes, expect perfection.
On my way back, in my head were echoing the words of sensei, “Expect perfection.” It sounds very brash and presumptuous. But coming from whom they come, those words can be taken as a promise. A promise that I trust will be fulfilled.
It was a pleasure, as always, master.