In an office building nestled in the heart of Tokyo, a handful of developers spent the early 1990s working tirelessly, year after year. They would sleep under their desks and seasons would change without them noticing. After more than five years of labor, the small team produced one of the most successful games in history of Sony’s PlayStation, a console that celebrated its 25th anniversary Tuesday.
The game, Gran Turismo, a realistic racing simulation, would become the single best-selling title for the first PlayStation console with over 10 million units sold. It also birthed a series that has grossed more than $4 billion in revenue. With seven Guinness World Records (including most cars in a racing game, achieved by Gran Turismo 6 with a total of 1,237) and a collective sales total of over 80 million units, Gran Turismo has made a mark in both the automotive industry and games industry, becoming PlayStation’s best-selling exclusive franchise of all time.
It continues to be a labor of love for the team at Polyphony Digital, which expanded from its original five developers to a team of more than 170 today. But it all started with a scrappy, dedicated team making real a boyhood vision of project director Kazunori Yamauchi.
Yamauchi, now Polyphony’s CEO, is a lifelong car enthusiast. At the young age of three, he could name all the makes and models he’d spot around his hometown. This wealth of knowledge came in part from his father, who also loved cars.
“I used to ride in the car in which he made deliveries [for our family’s porcelain shop],” Yamauchi said when interviewed by The Washington Post by email. “I also used to watch the cars go by from the porcelain shop. And my father used to teach me, telling me things like, ‘now that’s a Mercedes-Benz.'”
At the age of 15, a visit to the arcade sparked the idea for Gran Turismo after Yamauchi was underwhelmed by the current technology of racing games.
“When I saw racing games in the arcade, I had thought to myself, this isn’t it – I want to drive real cars,” he said.
Eventually he had the chance to make it happen. In 1993, the same year Sony Computer Entertainment was founded, he kick-started his career in the game industry at Polyphony Entertainment (now Polyphony Digital). Yamauchi was tasked with creating games for the original PlayStation console, which would release the following year.
He first designed Motor Toon Grand Prix, a cartoonish racing game akin to Mario Kart. The success of the project pushed him up the ladder to become president of the company. From there, he was able to manifest his dream of making racing games that felt as realistic as possible, though it required years of hard work.
Yamauchi calls the original Gran Turismo’s development an “ambitious undertaking.” From start to finish the process took five years. While this is far from unheard of today, back then it was rare for a development cycle to last so long. Because the team was only 10 people (and grew to 20 near the end), development wasn’t too costly and the team was given the time it needed to perfect Gran Turismo. This allowed room for experimentation, too – and the game required a lot of it. According to Yamauchi, “everything was a first.”
“Realtime 3-D graphics, a physics engine for an automobile, a system for controlling this – each one was required in the end, but it wasn’t like we knew they were necessary from the start,” Yamauchi said. “The result of piecing together all the required things one by one, became Gran Turismo.”
Yamauchi was so dedicated to the project that he barely left the office, and he remembers being home only four times a year. One night, he stepped outside wearing a T-shirt and was met with freezing weather. He said stood there, surprised that winter had come already, and wondered how many winters it had been since he’d begun work on the game.
Developers working long hours to finalize games, known within the industry as crunch, has been a much-discussed topic in the past year. An interview question to Yamauchi specifically asking his thoughts on crunch given his experience on Gran Turismo had not been answered at the time of publication. In response to another question about the game’s development, Yamauchi recalled it fondly, describing it as “incredibly fun.”
“We just focused on making something we wanted to make, every day, day after day,” he said. “And every eight hours in a day, Gran Turismo made an evolution that you could see and feel.”
Gran Turismo’s triumphs aren’t solely in sales, either: It has become a critically-acclaimed series for its realism. Through the years, Gran Turismo has become increasingly more ambitious with its tech, physics and mechanics. Automotive companies like Chevrolet have partnered with the franchise for digital prototypes of real-life products, like the camouflaged Corvette C7 in Gran Turismo 5, before they hit the market.
The team at Polyphony knew they were making something special with the original game, but no one could have guessed just how successful it would become. Yamauchi had no idea his passion project would mark the debut of an award-winning series that would span multiple generations of Sony’s new console. But he had conviction, he said, and knew that players must feel the way he did about racing games – that “a video game like this was wanted by the world.”
The next entry to Gran Turismo hasn’t been announced yet, and Yamauchi couldn’t comment on current development plans for the series and its continuation on next generation consoles like the PS5, but Yamauchi believes strongly in virtual reality’s potential for the racing genre. Gran Turismo Sport’s VR mode was Yamauchi’s first foray into full-fledged virtual reality, but latency, especially for something as fast-paced as a racing game, continues to be a drawback. As technological advancements come to VR, he imagines eye tracking could help define its future.
“If you consider the biological characteristics of the human eye (where resolution is only high in the center of the viewing field), you should be able to use precision eye tracking to avoid having to draw the entire image in detail, but our technology is not there yet,” he said.