15 Years of Gran Turismo: Evolution of a Winning Formula

With a decade and a half of incredibly authentic racing action now under its hood, the Gran Turismo franchise is poised to enter a new era of even greater hyperrealism. And the ascent continues, with Sony announcing last week that GT is partnering with the Ayrton Senna Institute to add yet another layer to the player experience. But before diving headlong into the future of virtual racing, let's take a moment to look back at the evolution of this venerable series and its creator.

The Man Behind the Wheel

Hit game developer? Professional racer? Polyphony Digital founder Kazunori Yamauchi has a foot in both worlds, dedicating much of his life's work to pushing the limits both on the race track and in the studio. Not content to settle for the status quo, this high-speed visionary and Gran Turismo series creator is on a quest for racing perfection.

With a longtime fascination with fast cars that began at a young age, Yamauchi's initial experiments with implementing real-world racing physics into games earned him early success in 1994, when the cartoonish racer Motor Toon Grand Prix — a precursor to the original Gran Turismo — was released on PlayStation in Japan. It proved a humble but impressive starting line for what would spin out into an impressive career crafting the gaming world's most realistic racing series.

When it comes to Yamauchi's need for speed, his life imitates his art — the game designer gets behind the wheel himself to compete in racing events around the world. His passion for realism is a driving force behind the continued evolution and fine-tuning of the Gran Turismo franchise.

Pushing Polygons at 230 MPH

These days, firing up the original Gran Turismo on PlayStation may be a shock to the system for anyone used to the ultra-flashy, more recent entries in the series. But the game that started it all was a groundbreaking achievement for console racing simulators when it launched in 1997. Compared to other games released around this time, it still manages to impress.

Going from the first game's jaggy 300-car polygon count to the photorealistic sheen of 500,000 polygons in Gran Turismo 5 was a huge leap. But even from the beginning, the hallmark of Gran Turismo has been all about fine-tuning the realistic racing physics and racing action in order to squeeze the maximum wow-factor out of the hardware. This is a vision that's followed the franchise from Sony's first console to the PlayStation 2, PS3 and beyond.

With more than 70 million game unit sales to date across the entire franchise, Gran Turismo remains a staple exclusive to the PlayStation's ever-evolving hardware lineup. Coming at the very tail end of the current console generation, Gran Turismo 6 offers one last hurrah for PS3-owning autophiles before the changing of the guard. Beyond the latest in eye-melting photorealism and authentic handling, GT6 is set to deliver a staggering 1,200 unique cars at launch, from carryover classics to scintillating new rides. That's a lot of sexy chrome and heavy-duty horsepower to lust over.

From the Screen to the Track

Blurring the line between virtual racing and the real deal has always been a core goal of the Gran Turismo series, and Polyphony took that a step further with GT Academy. An annual competition that gives the best players an opportunity to train and race on the real circuit with the Nissan racing team, GT Academy launched in Europe in 2008 and soon spread to the US in 2011.

In this intense competition, gamers hit the virtual track for a chance to win by downloading a standalone Gran Turismo demo from PSN and participating in online qualifier rounds. Those who shave their runs down to the best time and beat out the competition in the final events progress to a rigorous race training camp that's documented in a TV series. The winner from that event goes on to receive further training and an international racing license before joining the Nissan team.

GT Academy is something Yamauchi wanted to do from the very beginning, and watching skilled gamers apply their racing skills to a real-word setting has been exciting for him. For example, the competition's original 2008 winner, Lucas Ordoñez, went on to win several major racing events in the years following. The popularity of GT Academy continues to grow, with unending streams of newcomers stepping up to compete — over a million players entered this year's competition.

Making a Mark in the Automotive Industry

With the runaway success of the Gran Turismo series and his own involvement in the racing circuit, Yamauchi's vision and influence has grown well beyond the boundaries of the racing game world. Not surprisingly, the game maker-turned-racer is eager to pay homage to the cars he loves and the racing industry that has inspired his own continuing innovation.

Each year, Yamauchi selects a classic race car to honor at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance with the Grant Turismo Trophy. The annual Gran Turismo Award offers another means to honor sweet rides. Winners of both are featured in future editions of the game series.

Seeing the Road Through the Eyes of Ayrton Senna

Yamauchi announced last week that GT6 players will have access to exclusive content honoring the roots of legendary Brazilian racer Ayrton Senna. "Ayrton Senna has always been my hero ... If it weren't for Ayrton Senna, I don't think Gran Turismo would have ever been developed," Yamauchi said of the influential driver. The partnership will link the past and future of racing by reinforcing the relationship between the racetrack and Gran Turismo.

Given the tremendous popularity of the Gran Turismo franchise, in relation to other racing games, it's not surprising to see that car manufacturers are showing a growing interest in the racing simulation genre and the video game industry. For racing game fans and auto enthusiasts looking forward to a bright new future full of hyperrealism behind the wheel, there's a lot to be excited about.

Get behind the wheel with Ayrton Senna by preordering GT6 here.

Nathan Meunier is a journalist and freelance writer who covers video games, technology, and geek culture. He's also the author of Up Up Down Down Left WRITE: The Freelance Guide to Video Game Journalism, which is out now on Kindle and in Print.