Talking Gran Turismo PSP With Kazunori Yamauchi

We chat with the Gran Turismo series creator about the past, present, and future of the real driving simulator.

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My interview with Gran Turismo series creator Kazunori Yamauchi began with a question…from him to me. On the heels of this morning's proper unveiling of Gran Turismo PSP and the debut of a new trailer for Gran Turismo 5 for the PlayStation 3, new information has begun to flood out about both games. While Yamauchi spoke at length to me about the PSP version of the game (read our latest hands-on), our conversation began when discussing the trailer for GT5, which featured not just the traditional road racing you've come to expect from the series, but also the addition of a couple of high-profile racing licenses: WRC (World Rally Championship) and NASCAR.

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It seems that Yamauchi, who recently attended a NASCAR race at the Texas Motor Speedway, has become increasingly interested in the stock car series, even though he admitted the series feels very alien to the traditional Japanese motorsports fan who, according to Yamauchi, share tastes with European racing fans. His question to me was this: What do you think of NASCAR?

It's not often that a legendary game maker poses a serious question to you and, because of that, I wanted to choose my words carefully. After some thought, I said that while NASCAR wasn't my favorite form of motorsport, its presence and importance to the American racing scene is undeniable. He seemed satisfied with that answer, as well as my suggestion that the traditionally oval-focused series would do well to add another couple of road races to the series to appeal to non-American fans.

Gran Turismo for PSP was unveiled in playable form today--about five years after its initial announcement--and that delay has made more than a few (myself included) wonder if the game was ever going to become a reality. Indeed, Yamauchi himself admits that it has been a long road between bringing Gran Turismo for PSP from its 2004 announcement to release this October.

"Simply put, we really wanted to develop the game ourselves, without licensing it out to others. When you do that, there's an order of priority that you develop. We had to make Tourist Trophy, we had to get out GT HD, and as a result, it took us this long to get into it. We actually regretted now that we made the announcement back then because it was really too early."

Having spent some hands-on time with the game, both in an older-model PSP and a new PSP Go, it's apparent that the long wait hasn't been equated with a lack of effort. In fact, the sheer amount of content in Gran Turismo for PSP is staggering, with about 800 cars to choose from, 35 tracks, and 60 track layouts to drive (Yamauchi told me this was the most complete list of tracks ever seen in a GT game). The tracklist shown in the E3 build of the game included: High Speed Ring, Laguna Seca, Trial Mountain, Nurburgring Nordschliefe, Ice Arena, Cote de Azure, Tsukuba, Autumn Ring, Seattle, Swiss Alps, Grand Canyon, Deep Forest, Toyko Route 246, and Grand Valley. I only had a chance to tackle a small segment of the massive Ring, but it looks like a faithful re-creation of the track, complete with its endless snaking corners and narrow roadway.

Of course, Gran Turismo has always been about fantasy and reality--and the tracklist is no different. Sitting side by side Laguna Seca, you have the superfast fictional High Speed Ring or the complex and tricky Trial Mountain. I asked Yamauchi about the original creation of some of those fictional tracks; how they came about and what served as their inspiration? His answer: pen and paper.

"We really just started drawing off with inspiration by drawing on piece of paper. [We'd say] 'You have a hill here.' 'You have a valley here.' 'So you probably get a view of the corner like this.' And as a result, a lot of the courses we made in that manner actually came out to be very fun courses to drive."

And it’s the act of driving those courses, fictional or otherwise, that is at the heart of Gran Turismo for PSP. While you can play the game with the single analog stick on the PSP, the touch of the D pad is significantly more accurate for making small corrections. The result is that Gran Turismo for PSP feels very similar to the original Gran Turismo, a game that only had support for D pad steering. Yamauchi agrees, "I think myself that it might be easier to play with the D pad. [The original Gran Turismo] was only compatible with the D pad to begin with. We have a long history of adjusting the D pad controls from back then. And of course, we've tuned analog controller so that you can play it either way, but I think the preference for most will be to play with the D pad."

As for the future of Gran Turismo for PSP and its interface with Gran Turismo 5, Yamauchi remains vague about details. He did confirm that Polyphony Digital isn't planning DLC for the PSP game, but the idea of car ownership across the series continues to intrigue him. "These are just preliminary thoughts but [regarding] the cars in a user's garage: It's their cars. We're thinking about maybe being able to transfer your cars from your PSP garage straight into your Gran Turismo 5 garage. But that's just something we're considering. I'm hoping to make it so that the cars you get in the game are your cars. So that even when the system changes, whether it be from PSP to GT5 to even future renditions of GT6 and on, [you can keep the cars you've collected]."

Finally, a general question for the man who has been more closely connected to console racing than anyone else during the past decade: What did he think of the trend of simulation racing game developers shifting their development toward a more arcade-racing approach, leaving the Gran Turismo series as one of the last console bastions of so-called serious driving games?

"I don't really know how to answer that. U2 makes U2 [records]. Just because hip-hop is popular in the world, [U2 is] not going to go do hip-hop. We just really go with the trends of the users and what we really believe in. And we try to accomplish what we believe in at a very high level."

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Look for more on Gran Turismo for PSP and Gran Turismo 5 in the coming months.

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