Kazunori Yamauchi is one of the legends of game development and his Gran Turismo games are a flagship title on every PlayStation game console with lifetime sales above 90 million. And while racing is his passion, he stands at one of the most interesting intersections in gaming.
Racing is a sport and the crossover between sports and video games is getting deeper. The reverb is ringing in my head. I got to experience that reverberation last week while watching Gran Turismo players race each other in an esports tournament using highly realistic racing simulators built around PlayStation 5 consoles. Just outside the esports building at the Rennsport Reunion 7 exhibition, Porsche race cars were roaring around the Laguna Seca track with an incredible volume that added some cool sound effects while I was watching the indoor race.
Inside, Gran Turismo player Randall Haywood shrugged off the sounds and concentrated on winning the tournament, which netted him $15,000 in winnings. It was a surreal moment that reminded me of this summer’s Gran Turismo movie, which tells the true story of how Jann Marborough became a pro racer by learning how to race in the video game.
Back when Marborough was starting out, he encountered resistance from pro racers who felt that a video game racer was going to be too amateurish, endangering other racers on real tracks. In a marketing move, Nissan set up the GT Academy to train video game drivers how to be racers. It lasted for a while until 2016, when creator Darren Cox parted ways with Nissan. It enabled Marborough to go pro.
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Haywood liked how Porsche embraced esports enough to put it inside the racing festival. Like Marborough’s parents, Haywood’s family resisted his passion for playing games and racing. But just like in the movie, once he started winning his family came around. To me, that’s a microcosm of how gaming — once the domain of nerds — is becoming accepted in mass culture, one family at a time. (This is the theme of a GamesBeat event that we plan to do on December 7 ahead of The Game Awards in Los Angeles).
Speaking through a translator, Yamauchi told me in an interview that he loved how the movie captured the story, but it was a very abridged view of the real life story that he witnessed himself. It’s hard to capture life in a movie, just as it’s hard to capture a real-life sport in a video game. During this interview, I was asking questions alongside a car journalist and another car journalist who used to be a game journalist.
Yamauchi was at the Porsche event in part because he is also a racer and a lifelong car enthusiast. He said he had driven at Laguna Seca but never raced there. Yet he also likes real races because it can give him a feel for what video game racing should be like. He has a Porsche 911 GT3 from 2001 that he still drives almost every day.
He noted that after the Gran Turismo movie came out in August, it generated a surge of interest in the video game based on online play.
“Gran Turismo players don’t really make the distinction between esports and the real racing because for them, they’re really just car enthusiasts overall. Esports obviously is easier to get into than real world motorsports,” he said.
Making the virtual more real
Yamauchi is the CEO of Japan’s Polyphony Digital, owned by Sony, and it has 250 people working on Gran Turismo games. The mantra there is to make the most realistic video games possible, and the team is doing everything it can to increase the realism of the game racing experience. Tapping Sony’s AI expertise, Polyphony Digital is working AI racers that can challenge the best humans.
Yamauchi told me that the AI has become very competitive when it comes to racing against the best human drivers. Sony released its AI on the market in February 2023 as AI racing agent GT Sophy, which enabled Gran Turismo players to race against the AI to become better drivers.
Yamauchi said that five human drivers learned how to become race car drivers thanks to starting out playing Gran Turismo, based on the finalists for this year’s Porsche Esports Challenge USA. That’s a pretty good indicator of how realistic the game is.
“The physics in Gran Turismo is exactly the same as what you would experience in a real racing car or a real commercial car. By playing Gran Turismo, you get a sense of what a car will do according to your inputs into the car, how the car would react to it,” Yamauchi said.
He added “Racing car simulators are actually easier than trying to simulate a commercial car because racing cars drive at high speeds. A racing car, because you’re driving at high speeds, gives you recorded lap times of the rear cars. When you change the setup, it affects the lap times. We know how it affects the lap times when the settings are changed. Already, 10 years ago, we have correlation between what we have out of our simulations as to what is on the real track. We already know that the model is very accurate, but in a commercial car though, when you take a Porsche and you drive it out of a parking lot, you already know as soon as the car starts driving, it feels like a Porsche, but we’re not quite there yet in
terms of simulation in game where you could get that feeling. That’s something we still need to work on.”
Yamauchi said that the players are acknowledging that the AI can teach them new strategies. Haywood laughed and said he could easily beat the AI. But he acknowledged that he could test racing strategies against the AI to see if moves could be executed either too fast or too slow.
The humans and the AI
I ran Haywood’s comments by Michael Spranger, Sony AI president, and Pete Wurman, GT Sophy Project Lead. They’re pretty serious AI experts whose brains are being applied to the racing game, among other things Sony is working on. They noted that their job is to test different levels of AI and choose the best one to put in the game.
Wurman noted that the job wasn’t to create a superhuman AI that could beat human Gran Turismo all the time. Rather, their job was to release a version of the AI that was the most enjoyable for a variety of players.
“Definitely one goal is to make it a fun race,” said Spranger.
They weren’t surprised that Haywood could beat GT Sophy. Rather, they wanted something that could push the humans to learn more.
Wurman said they noticed that GT Sophy would chase the human drivers and they had to drive extremely defensively for the whole race because they worried that GT Sophy would pass them and never lose the lead after that. In other words, GT Sophy caused the human drivers to change their behavior. And using a “ghost mode”car that showed a green line that revealed the path of the best GT Sophy time, players could follow along and drive on that GT Sophy ghost line and improve their times.
GT Sophy would also behave more human by adapting its strategy during a race. And so you have the human drivers responding by being more AI-like, and the AI being more human. They’re making each other better. In the long run, Wurman thinks that tricks like this may make it into the game. And how would weather change this trick? Well, you definitely want to try that out first in a simulator.
I noticed in the human esports race that the players were willing to drive over the bumpy yellow track borders, rather than stay inside the asphalt the whole time, in order to cut seconds off the time. They were skating close to the edge of both disaster and the rules — as you have to keep two tires on the track.
It’s little things like this that is helping Sony AI gather more data. It is collecting it from tens of millions of players, and Wurman said they’re still trying to learn from it.
But it is telling that when real pro racers head to a new track for the first time, they will play on it with a simulator first before going out and risking their lives on the real track. Sony AI also did a demo with Lamborghini at the World Series where they showed how the AI could drive into a turn, throw the car into a spin, and then finish with the car pointing in the right direction. That’s a trick humans most definitely would rather try first on a virtual track instead of a real track.
“What’s interesting about the evolution of Gran Turismo for the last 25 years has been making it more realistic, with cars more accurately rendered, and with more realistic physics,” said Wurman. “But the one thing that is missing from the GT world is really competitive races at all levels. GT Sophy can fill that gap.”
The perfect game?
You can see how Yamauchi is driving toward creating the perfect game that mimics real life.
I asked Yamauchi if he can still think of a lot of improvements that you can make to the game, or if it is starting to feel like Madden NFL, same game every year?
“No, there’s still lots and lots to do. We don’t have enough computing power at all,” Yamauchi said.
He noted that half of the people who bought the PlayStation VR 2 are playing Gran Turismo, as it is well suited for VR experiences.
He noted that AI is also going to help make the process of game development easier.
As for Yamauchi’s view of AI, he said, “Kazunori: When cars were first created, obviously, it was a lot faster than the man running. It was a lot faster than the horses. Horse racing and sprint racing track, they’re all still there as a sport. I think that’s the same thing with AI as well. In the world of chess and shougi, the
players are actually starting to pick up new skills from the AI players in that world. I think that’s the same thing that’s happening in our world as well, where they’re starting to pick up new driving skills and new ways to drive from the AI. The AI drivers, they go beyond the conventional ways of driving that we are used to. I think it’s a new world and new field that drivers will be able to discover. How Max Verstappen is actually closer to how an AI drives actually, because he uses the slip angle of the rear tires really well as he goes through the corners.”
The reverberations in games and racing also echo in the branding of cars.
Deniz Keskin, director of brand management at Porsche, said in our interview that as soon as esports got its hold in racing, Porsche embraced that as a natural extension of its hardcore motorsport competitions. Porsche even designed a car, the Vision GT, to be used especially for a video game. They did all the testing and more for a normal car, but from the ground up they targeted the model at gamers.
“People see the real car and then they think it was a design study that was put in the game, whereas it
was the other way round,” Keskin said. “It was the first virtual car that we have built. Then because people loved it so much, we said let’s build physical mockup so people can have a real access to it as well. That kind of second life has really been amazing for us.”
Yamauchi said that the limited edition cars are especially attractive for video game players.
“There are 77 of them,” referring to a new car Porsche introduce, he said. “Most people will never drive it or see it or anything like that. Gran Turismo is a place where I can dream and I can drive everything that I care about, so the fit seems correct.”
Adam Bauer, head of partnerships at FaZe Clan, an esports and creator company, was also at the Porsche Rennsport Reunion 7 event with the FaZe Arcade. It was a “crossover” project. FaZe Clan talent including FaZe Swagg, FaZe Nate Hill, FaZe Adapt, FaZe Ronaldo, FaZe Crimsix, and FaZe Blaze showed up at the event to carry the flag for esports.
“The ambition is we want to highlight the crossover with a prestigious brand like Porsche,” which is also one of FaZe’s sponsors, Bauer said. “They’re actively investing in the esports space. We want to help build that brand with a younger audience that maybe can’t buy those products today. But one day they will aspire to do that. We have a crossover with our talent because, once they become successful, they all wind up buying their own Porsches.”
As for sports, he said that if you look at the athletes, they play video games in their offtime as a big part of their culture. They both wind up promoting each other to their respective fans. Bauer recognized esports isn’t yet as lucrative as sports, despite the numbers of fans soaring. He knows that esports boomed and then stagnated, and that esports needs a boost to come from somewhere.
Video games might also help with car culture, which Yamauchi said varies from country to country. He said car culture is strong in the U.S., the United Kingdom and Germany. But he said that car culture in Japan is very week compared to what it used to be.
“The role of Gran Turismo is really to take the new car cultures that are rising and convey it to the new generation and the youths that are coming up now that are just becoming introduced into that world,” he said.
The crowded intersection
What is remarkable about this conversation is that it involves so many parties. There are the AI experts at Sony AI, game designers like Yamauchi, car creators at Porsche, real race car drivers like Marborough, and esports drivers like Haywood. This is a microcosm for the intersection of games, the real world, and mass culture.
Keskin said he went to the movie with his 13-year-old son. After that, he wanted his mother to go with him to see it again because he wanted her to understand how he could make a life out of his video game passion.
If you stand at this intersection long enough, you’re going to encounter someone crossing it, and you just might get a bright idea about what to do next. That’s what we hope to explore at our upcoming events like GamesBeat Next on October 23-24 in San Francisco and December 7 in Los Angeles.
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