Kazunori Yamauchi on making Gran Turismo Sport

The gaming legend on designing games, cars and even smartwatches.
A photo of Kazunori with hero Steve McQueen at Geneva Motor Show
Kazunori with his hero Steve McQueen at Geneva © Benjamin Kratsch
By Benjamin Kratsch

Kazunori Yamauchi is 49 years old, but when he talks about cars he still has this glimmer in his eyes, like a kid in front of a Christmas tree. And really, Geneva Motor Show in Switzerland is basically candy land for car enthusiasts, so when we meet Yamauchi for the second time to talk about the upcoming Gran Turismo Sport, he can't wait to tell us about all the beauty he has discovered: The new Bugatti Chiron, the Aston Martin Valkyrie, a Bond car from the future.

The CEO of Polyphony Digital spends minutes describing the fine lines of the Fittipaldi EF7, the new Vision Gran Turismo from Italian manufacturer Pininfarina, which follows a completely different concept than the main Vision Gran Turismo of Gran Turismo 6 – the Mercedes Vision sported a very futuristic aesthetic, and almost felt more like a spaceship on wheels than a traditional car.

“The Mercedes Vision was the luxury sports car of the future, but the Fittipaldi is way more of a racer. It's designed to race, not to impress with its visuals. That's my type of car,” he tells us. “It has some very nice details, especially on the engine hood, but overall what matters is performance, aerodynamics and weight. It weighs just 1,000kg, which is super light for a 600ps racing car."

That's just about 400 more than the new Red Bull TAG Heuer RB 13, which just so happens to be next to the lounge where we meet with Yamauchi. Because this is not the booth of Sony Playstation, but TAG Heuer. Yamauchi is not just here to play and talk about Gran Turismo Sport with us, you see, but to meet with TAG Heuer CEO Jean-Claude Biver, who reveals an unexpected announcement during our visit to the show: Kazunori Yamauchi is designing a smartwatch for Gran Turismo Sport, together with TAG Heuer. 

© PlayStation

New game, new car, new vision

Though Gran Turismo Sport is clearly a new direction for the franchise, talking to Yamauchi, it is clear that its conception happened many years ago.

“When I was a teenager, I was more interested in games and tech than music and girls. I was considered to be an otaku, a nerd so to speak,” he says. “And Gran Turismo has ultimately given me the opportunity to change the perspective on our culture. Car companies and other big corporations from the real world don't just respect game developers now, they really want to work with us.”

His company has an amazing track record of building bridges and knocking down the wall separating real from virtual: GT Academy has transformed ordinary people and normal gamers like Lucas Ordoñez into race drivers, professionals and real world champions.

A shot of the Fittipaldi EF7 in Gran Turismo Sport
A man and his car: The Fittipaldi EF7 © Sony

Picking the flagship car for the new game, which will feature 140 vehicles in total, then, carries some serious import, and it’s clear that the decision has been weighing heavily on Yamauchi’s mind. “Really, when I decide which car is supposed to be a new Vision Gran Turismo, it comes down to variety. We have the Bugatti Vision Gran Turismo, which is the fastest street car in the world – 270mph, 1,650hp. It's a true Bugatti, with a very muscular design, aggressive LED headlamps, and a giant body. The Fittipaldi is completely different: It's a very elegant car, with very fine lines and subtle curves. And we have more in the works, but I like to keep some secrets until launch."

Though Yamauchi is a very busy man, travelling the world almost the entire year, it's important for him to be very hands-on with all Vision Gran Turismo projects. “We don't do sponsoring or branding, I don't like that. So there were a lot of meetings with Emerson Fittipaldi and Paolo Pininfarina about what's the essence of their company and how we can create an exciting driving experience out of this for Gran Turismo Sport. I just love the process: From the first concept over the first full-sized clay, the whole shaping, to a car I can test drive. For me a car needs to be the extension of the driver, so really it's about the handling, the sound of the engine, the feeling – not just appearance. Actually, the most enjoyable car to drive for me is a Nissan GT-R which doesn't look like much in comparison to a luxury hypercar, but the handling is just superb."

Building bridges as a philosophy: Yamauchi designs a smart watch

But Yamauchi is not yet satisfied, he wants more. His dream: a true official, FIA recognised Gran Turismo world championship with the blessing of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, which has their headquarters just a couple miles away from the convention centre. If all goes to plan, that will be realised this year, with Nations’ Cup and Manufacturer’s Fan modes, regulated by the FIA as they would be any other IRL motor race.

TAG Heuer is helping with that as the official time giver of Gran Turismo Sport, but CEO Jean-Claude Biver has bigger plans: “We are currently building a watch together with Kazunori. The design is very much a Carrera, but it's a smartwatch and all the apps will improve the Gran Turismo experience."

A shot of the Fittipaldi EF7 in front of the Colosseum in Gran Turismo Sport
That’s how the new Vision GT looks in the game © Sony

While both Biver and Yamauchi are somewhat tight-lipped about this special project, and how the watch will interact with the game, Biver is excited to learn from his partner. “You know I might be old, but my brain is young. I'm not a gamer, racing in GT Sport is still a big challenge for me. But I want to learn more about your culture and how we can help to improve it. Our engineers are building the watch with some specific design details Kazunori wants us to implement and his team is creating all the great apps around it so that with a glimpse at your hand you will get much more information during a race than without. And there is much more."

He hints at a customisation feature based on touch and much more data from the game, but according to TAG Heuer, we'll have to wait a bit more for the big announcement. “And we are excited to partner for this official FIA world championship because gaming deserves that. It's a true sport, it deserves to be treated like a true motorsport and we want to be at the forefront of that.”

How Yamauchi became a master of his craft

Our talk turns to the early stages of Yamauchi’s career. “Our entire life is about learning, that's the most important thing everyone has to learn", he reflects. As so frequently he does, Yamauchi looks to the real world for his video game simulations, for learning, for knowledge.

“My first mentor was a mechanic, Mr Yamamoto. I asked everything I needed to know and he took the time to explain it." Almost three decades ago, this mechanic taught Yamauchi how engines work – just what differentiates a V8 from a V6. He taught him to repair cars, modify them, get the most of out them. The experience changed Yamauchi’s view of vehicles that many take for granted.

My first mentor was a mechanic, Mr Yamamoto. I asked everything I needed to know and he took the time to explain it.

Kazunori Yamauchi

“A car for me is not just an object, it has a soul,” he continues. “You can really sense the level of grip the rear tires have left. You can feel how much of that grip is being used for turning a corner. It's almost like an animal, like a horse. You have to find a way to treat it right to get the maximum performance. And it will sure as hell tell you when you suck at driving," he laughs.

Yamauchi speaks from experience: he has crashed more than one car - the first was an old Nissan, the second an expensive Porsche 911 Boxster. “I built the first Gran Turismo games to become a better race driver. So I needed a great simulator to actually learn how to drive a real racing car before getting behind the actual wheel."

A shot of TAG Heuer CEO Biver learning to drive
Is still learning to drive: TAG Heuer CEO Biver © Benjamin Kratsch

A fun little anecdote here: before Sony built the first Playstation, they were a developer for Nintendo. So Yamauchi worked on a game called Motor Toon Grand Prix, which looked like a classic Nintendo game – very colourful, very family friendly – but actually had a touch of simulation in it. It was so good that Yamauchi was able to convince Sony’s executive board that they could create a better game without Nintendo, which effectively kickstarted both the Gran Turismo franchise and the PlayStation itself.

The real simulation aspects, though, kicked in when Yamauchi learned more and more about data gathering. “Now you can just go out and buy a drone shooting high-quality images and it's not even very expensive. But back in the days, we had to be more creative, so we rented a drone, attached a Sony DSLR camera on it and hoped for the best."

Yamauchi's team became adept at analyzing tracks in this way – there will be 19 in total on release – but also used normal camera equipment attached to a car to get as many shots from the surface as possible.

“The quality of the surface dictates the grip and it is super important for me to deliver this 1:1 into the game. The roughness and unevenness especially, because that's what creates the challenge for the tyres. And obviously, we need to capture the right temperature of a certain part of the track at a certain time.”

Yamauchi is nothing if not obsessive, but he maintains his attention to detail is artistic, not mechanical. The screen is merely his canvas for painting his reality, one that he can share with others.

At the end of the day, coding is poetry, and games are the poetry of data in that way.

Kazunori Yamauchi

Gran Turismo Sport releases on PS4 later this year. Check back next week for our hands-on impressions with the game from the Geneva Motor Show. For more games coverage, follow @RedBullGames on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

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