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30 in 30: Polyphony Digital

Laps ahead of the field

There are but a handful studios in the world that seem to operate outside of the typical boundaries of video game production. You know, those small things called budgets and deadlines. Valve springs to mind. Team Ico maybe.

And then there's Polyphony, the Sony-owned developer known by its most committed fans (and biggest critics) for one thing - taking its sweet-ass time. With everything.

The chances are, though, you never even played Polyphony's first game. It's ironic that the studio famed for its work on one of the biggest racing sims ever started out with two cartoony racing games that are more in league with Mario Kart.

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But the Japan-only Motor Toon Grand Prix and its sequel were just the beginning for the studio then-named Poly's Entertainment. Its president Kazunori Yamauchi's real dream was to create a racing game of incredible realism - to convert his passion for cars and motorsports into a video game for hardcore car enthusiasts. A dream he realised in 1997 - after five long years in development - with the release of Gran Turismo on PSone.

Polyphony Digital was born 10.85 million sales later, when any Sony execs that frowned at such a drawn-out development (and the inevitable costs associated with it) got the justification they needed. And its the trust built up in these early years that seemingly affords Polyphony near unlimited freedom today.

Polyphony Digital and the man in charge, Yamauchi, stand resiliently by one development principle: it'll be done when it's done and not a day sooner. And so gamers who hoped to be playing GT5 by 2008 were hit with a string of infuriating delays that pushed the game back to November 2010. Six full years separate the releases of GT4 and GT5. But really, why was anyone surprised?

Oddly, though, if you look over the company's 17-year history you'll see that it's clocked up 12 major disc releases - that's near enough a game every year and a half. The work rate is there then. We just wish they'd skip all the Prologue diversions.

OVERVIEW

Founded: 1998
Location: Tokyo, Japan
Killer Quote: 'The hurdles we set for ourselves were very high. Our objective was to create a great revolution in GT5, something to the likes of which has never been seen since GT1 back in 1997, so we had to set our sights very high. As a result, GT5 became an extremely large and complex project, almost like the Apollo Space Programme.' - Kazunori Yamauchi

KEY PEOPLE

Kazunori Yamauchi

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Although there are undoubtedly a great number of very talented people working under Polyphony's Tokyo-based roof, we never see any of them. President Kazunori Yamauchi is the sole face of the company and has become one of the most recognisable faces in the Japanese industry due to his frequent chats with media.

Yamauchi discovered his love for cars when he was three years old, later falling in love with video games at 10 years old when his father got him a computer. Yamauchi famously recalls coming up with the principle idea for Gran Turismo when he was 15. Little did he know that 15 years later he would release that game and take the industry by storm.

But Yamauchi's passion for cars isn't just restricted to racing in the virtual world. The game designer is an avid racer in real life, having sat in the driver's seat for teams such as the World Car Awards team for the SP8 Class race in Nürburgring. He more recently competed in a 24-hour race at the Nürburgring, grabbing a victory in the SP 8T Class and placing 36th overall.

Further impressive notes on his CV include helping to design the menu system software for the central dashboard display in the Nissan R35 GT-R, along with numerous body kits and designs for aftermarket car part companies.

This guy doesn't just do video games. He does cars.

Polyphony Digital games we love

Gran Turismo

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It's ever so slightly predictable how this is going to pan out really, isn't it?

Gran Turismo's launch was very special. We were but school kids at the time with no driving experience, but when the game's thick driver's manual fell out of the CD case into our laps - dozens of pages of real-world driving techniques - we knew this game was something special.

That book and the game it came with served as our first real insight into the art of advanced driving, as we're sure it would have been for many of you. And what a game GT was. 178 real cars, incredible physics for the time, stunning visuals and, best of all, a full tuning option that let you add turbos, exhausts systems and lots more.

It was a car guy's dream, years before The Fast and the Furious.

Gran Turismo 4

The hurdles we set for ourselves were very high... As a result GT5 became extremely large like the Apollo Space Programme Kazunori Yamauchi

We were blown away by the graphics in GT3, but we'd also been spoiled by the 650 cars of the game before it. With a total of 181 cars in GT3, it felt lacking. GT4 then, would be the full package we were waiting for on the PS2.

GT4 didn't release until 2005, four years after its predecessor, and the extra development time had done it the world of good. Everything about GT4, from its physics to its single-player A-Spec structure, its 722-car selection and 51 tracks, felt more complete.

It also introduced the B-Spec mode that let players act as a team leader, managing a driver with commands on how aggressively to drive, when to overtake and when to pit stop.

This was the game to have in the final months of the PS2's reign as Sony's leading console.

Gran Turismo 5

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So, why exactly did GT5 take so damn long? Maybe it was because of the numerous versions of the game Polyphony spent time making before getting on with the real thing.

Maybe it was the obsession with getting in an almost excessive number of cars - over a thousand of them. Maybe it was because, while you sat and twiddled your thumbs for more racing, Polyphony saw time in its schedule to crank out Tourist Trophy - a PS2 bike racing game. Bikes, Polyphony? We want CARS!

But Gran Turismo 5 was well worth the wait. Its cars - the premium ones at least - are the best-looking we've seen in a game. It's physics are so acute that, with a decent steering wheel, you can every nuance of the car's balance and grip. And it's just an enormous game; A-Spec and B-Spec modes, license challenges, special events, seasonal online races, photo mode, street racing, Nascar, rally, online multiplayer, GT TV videos... the list goes on.

It finally delivers some of the long-requested features fans have been crying out for; visual and mechanical damage models, weather and races that transition from day to night.

It's even used as a base for discovering new real-life racing talent in the GT Academy tournaments, the winners of which have gone on to successes in real racing teams.

If you like car racing, you get GT5. That's the law.

Where are they now?

Kazunori Yamauchi has already confirmed that Gran Turismo 6 is in development. Literally nothing - not even its platform - is known, but if history is anything to go by, you probably won't get to play it until 2015 at the earliest. And there'll be two 'prologue' versions and a bike game out before then.

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