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Redefining car culture with Gran Turismo creator Kaz Yamauchi

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Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Polyphony Digital's Gran Turismo series has been a cultural phenomenon, a force renowned beyond the realm of video games, since its debut on the original PlayStation in 1998.

We're a few months away from the launch of Gran Turismo 6 on PlayStation 3, which is scheduled for Dec. 6. The series' scope and influence have only expanded in the 15 years since its inception — recent years have seen the outgrowth of Gran Turismo into projects such as GT Academy, Vision Gran Turismo and soon a feature film.

That immense influence is part of the reason Gran Turismo 6's name was on the first-ever Jalopnik Film Festival, which took place Sept. 18-19 in New York City. The event's opening party, hosted at the Classic Car Club Manhattan on the evening of Sept. 18, was highlighted by a panel featuring luminaries from the world of racing, including Polyphony Digital CEO Kazunori Yamauchi (pictured above).

Surrounded by impeccably maintained vintage vehicles and driving stations for Gran Turismo 6 outfitted with pedals and force-feedback wheels, the panelists discussed the origins of their own passion for racing, as well as their involvement with car culture — whether it was Ken Block and his wildly popular gymkhana videos or James Glickenhaus and films such as The Exterminator.

Then the two other members of the panel, Yamauchi and Urban Outlaw director Tamir Moscovici, presented the project they're collaborating on: the Gran Turismo documentary Kaz: Pushing the Virtual Divide.

The film, said Moscovici, focuses on the 15-year history of Gran Turismo and on the man behind it, as well as the series' impact on the automotive industry. It presents Yamauchi as a game developer driven by a relentless desire to improve his creation, and one whose creative vision is tied to his own experience as a race car driver.

The aforementioned names and projects may sound unfamiliar to you, but that certainly wasn't the case for those in attendance at the panel. The audience clearly was familiar with the panelists and their work; everyone in the room laughed at the same jokes and nodded in understanding at appropriate moments. The world of cars and racing has the same capacity for inspiring ardent fandom as video games, and that passion was on display that night.

In an interview with Polygon conducted prior to the panel, Yamauchi explained his personal and professional connection to racing. As far as he sees it, a vital part of making Gran Turismo — even more important than setting an overarching concept from on high — is to enjoy the process.

"If we don't enjoy developing the game, the users aren't going to enjoy playing it, I don't think," said Yamauchi through a translator. "So we work to find things that are fun. In regards to [Gran Turismo 6], creating a brand-new physics engine and a brand-new rendering engine — that's all fun, and obviously, projects like Vision Gran Turismo, that's a lot of fun to be involved in.

"If I enjoy racing, it will help evolve Gran Turismo even further"

"I think the reason I started racing is also the exact same," he continued. "If I enjoy racing, it will help evolve Gran Turismo even further. Rather than it being a vision that's set really high, it's really whether or not we're able to enjoy the moment when we're developing."

It's apparent that to Yamauchi, continuing to evolve and expand the breadth of Gran Turismo as a brand is just as important as improving the game itself with Gran Turismo 6. When asked to name the defining element of the upcoming title, Yamauchi mentioned both the "inward force" of its development — the new physics and rendering engines, revamped user interface and more — as well as the "outward force."

"The outward forces involve things like the Vision Gran Turismo project, where we're trying to go beyond the boundaries of a video game — just kind of breaking our barriers and going outward into other fields," said Yamauchi.

Polyphony Digital's development process for Gran Turismo 6 echoes Yamauchi's perfectionist mindset. As the gaming industry continues to move forward into the age of digital distribution, it only makes sense to change the way games are made and delivered, Yamauchi asserted.

"we're trying to go beyond the boundaries of a video game"

"I think it's unavoidable once you become [an] online [game], and I think it's the way it should be once you're online," he said. Yamauchi added that the Gran Turismo 6 team is currently working on features that won't make it into the game at launch, but will be added afterward. For example, the studio plans to release a post-launch update with a fundamental revision of the audio in the game.

"For us, the format of a 'title package' — I think its definition is becoming more and more vague. Because we're continuing to add new ideas as we speak."

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