GT4 Engine Notes: Kazunori Yamauchi interview

We get into the GT4 passenger seat next to Kazunori Yamauchi, the driving force behind Polyphony Digital and Gran Turismo

Gran Turismo is a hardcore game. The fact that Polyphony Digital's driving series has recently celebrated its fourth outing on PS2 and its huge sales may belie the fact, but Gran Turismo is as hardcore as they come.

Think about it. What does GT reward you with? Are there any huge, apocalyptic Burnout 3-style crashes? Are there any Fast and the Furious-style street racing special effects? Are there any exaggerated handling physics that push the backside out quicker than J Lo in her pop videos?

No. There is accuracy, depth and hardcore realism. The feeling you get from perfectly balancing brake and throttle through an S-bend, nudging the rumble strips as the straight opens up and you floor the accelerator, that's the same feeling hardcore gamers get from unconsciously ducking thousands of bullets in Ikaruga or soaking up Ico's melancholic atmosphere from a parapet of the castle.

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Gran Turismo is hardcore, and the reason is that its creator, Kazunori Yamauchi, is hardcore. This is a man who discovered his obsessive love for the automobile at the age of three. He personally oversees the research of almost every motor that appears in Gran Turismo to ensure it is a perfect representation of the real thing. And this is a man who we found at a Sony launch party for Gran Turismo 4 last week poring over cars he's no doubt seen, sat in, driven and probably owned a million times before.

So it was an extreme pleasure for us to catch up with Yamauchi-san, the president of developer Polyphony Digital, especially as the Gran Turismo series pulls up to a hugely important junction. With criticisms of GT4's lack of online mode, missing car damage and poor opponent AI scratching the otherwise sparkling bodywork of the game, we find ourselves asking if Gran Turismo can continue to appeal to so many people while remaining so hardcore.

Refreshingly, Yamauchi-san had some particularly honest thoughts to share with us...

You must be very pleased to have Gran Turismo 4 out across the world. How do you feel now the fans can finally play it?

Kazunori Yamauchi: To be honest I was very worried as we approached the release of GT4. We've been developing this title for over three and a half years - with other little titles here and there in between - so for three and a half years our fans were waiting for the game. I got to the stage where I wondered if players would wait that long, if they really wanted to wait three and a half years for a new Gran Turismo experience.

Yamauchi-san tries to choose how he's getting home.

Thankfully, now that the game is finished and in the hands of the fans, we've had some very positive feedback from all the markets we've released in. That makes me very happy, but there's another emotion that has taken that feeling over: relief. That's the strongest feeling I have right now!

There were delays along the way and features that had to be pulled. Was there ever a worry that you'd taken on a project that was just too big?

Kazunori Yamauchi: There's always pressure on developers to deliver on a new title, especially when you have set your sights very high. But for us, we always had to remember to respect the Gran Turismo brand. We had to ensure that we delivered a game that lived up to the GT badge. If it's wasn't yet good enough, we didn't release it.

So for me there was pressure to get Gran Turismo 4 finished - although pressure is perhaps not the correct word. I suppose it was more like a feeling that I had to get it out for the fans.

The game has been fantastically well received, although there are a number of high profile criticisms that have received a lot of attention, like the lack of an online mode and no car damage. How does it make you feel when people concentrate on these criticisms?

Kazunori Yamauchi: I totally understand these criticisms, but at the same time I must stress that the areas in which we have been criticised are the same areas that we did want to address at the start of development. For instance, if we are to implement a solid online play mode then first we must be able to rely on systems, support and infrastructure. We didn't think we were ready for that, so we had to take online out.

Then we come to car damage. We also planned to implement this feature in GT4 but we found that, technically, we could not do it to a level that satisfied our respect for the Gran Turismo brand.

Again I understand these criticisms, and I don't feel that these criticisms are unavoidable. But what I would like to say to people who have negative things to say about Gran Turismo 4 is that any features we removed were removed for very valid reasons.

How are you going to address these criticisms and in what kind of ways are you going to reward fans of GT for their patience?

Kazunori Yamauchi: Technically, the online mode is pretty much ready to go, so it's just a case of planning to release it when the time's right. Whether that's going to be this year, or on PS3 with GT5, we don't know yet.

Speaking of the online mode, we've heard that the guys at Polyphony Digital are always playing online in the office. What does online play add to the GT experience?

Kazunori Yamauchi: Playing against other human drivers adds so much life to the game over the single-player experience. The competition is far more intense, and far more satisfying. But more importantly than that, it's more fun. Being able to dis your opponent with your driving and your voice is great fun, and adds a whole new dimension to the game. That's what we all do at Polyphony - make fun of each other!

Unfortunately, due to the technical limitations of the PS2 and the high standards we hold for the GT brand the time was not right to allow everyone to enjoy that with GT4.

Finally, the racing game market seems to be going two ways: the over-the-top action racer; and the more authentic Gran Turismo-style driving experience. Do you think there's space in the console market for both these styles of game, and do you plan to merge the Gran Turismo brand with this other, more action-oriented style?

Kazunori Yamauchi: I don't think we really need to make a definite distinction between these two types of game. The 'flashy' driving game and the more realistic driving game don't need to compete against each other, and I don't think they are going to collide in the future. By this I mean that I do not want to deny people who prefer 'flashy' driving games, or a different kind of automobile lifestyle, access to the GT universe.

To this end, there are opportunities in the future for us to expand the GT universe in different directions while still keeping the core 'realness' of the GT brand at the centre of everything. Imagine that the authenticity of Gran Turismo is a multi-faceted shape with many different faces. That is what I am planning - to satisfy the desires of every automotive lifestyle while still remaining true to the GT brand.

Only when the basics are set can you forge ahead and take things in a new direction. With GT4, I think we have set the basics very well.

Gran Turismo 4 is out now for PS2. To catch up on our definitive review of the Japanese version, click here.