Design Essay: Changing The Game

14 May 2018 | by Michael Gooderham

As we reported recently, Audi have finally unveiled the result of a four-year project to design a car for a video game. This is not the first time a car manufacturer has created a concept specifically for the virtual world – we’ll get to that further down.

What separates the e-tron Vision Gran Turismo from those which came before it, however, is that rather than building an accompanying static model for motor shows and leaving it there, this 815-horsepower electric track car is engineered to work in real life too. It’s already been whisking VIPs around European Formula E tracks (and will likely tackle the Goodwood Hillclimb course this summer as well).

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Audi’s virtual supercar at the very real Rome ePrix

This shows that the Vision Gran Turismo initiative, set up in 2013 by Polyphony Digital to celebrate 15 years of “The Real Driving Simulator,” is something that is being taken increasingly seriously by the companies engaging with it. The brief is simple: design a two-door sports/GT car to feature in the bestselling PlayStation franchise, Gran Turismo. Audi’s is the 27th such design to appear, with a further seven listed as ‘Coming Soon’ from the likes of Lamborghini, Tesla, ItalDesign and… Nike.

But why divert the time and attention of a major OEM’s designers away from the serious business of motor show stars and production cars, to play around with some digital mad thing?

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Toyota FT-1, Supra and 2000GT (Gran Turismo SPORT)

Well, let us not underestimate the influential ability that video games have to bring the average person closer to a certain car or brand. Certainly, this writer wouldn’t have bought a bewinged Japanese import with rock-hard suspension were it not for an emotional connection to such vehicles forged through years of Need for Speed, Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, among others.

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Cars like the Nissan (Skyline) GT-R, Mazda RX series and the Subaru WRX/Mitsubishi Evo rivals became household names – and subsequently global products – thanks in varying part to the exposure they got through gaming. Equally, the market for 1990s and 2000s Japanese cars has exploded in recent years thanks to “the PlayStation generation” growing up and having money to spend on living out their old virtual fantasies… apparently.

It’s no different from any other form of dream car – those dreams merely have different source material to yesteryear’s movies, magazines and posters. It’s why over the past decade we’ve increasingly seen cars revealed in video games in parallel with real-world unveilings (Nissan GT-R, Toyota FT-1, Tata TaMo Racemo, Porsche GT2 RS [991]).

This phenomenon is also the only possible explanation there could ever be for the image below…

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Mercedes dominance stretches beyond Formula 1, apparently...

Putting your latest or most famous model(s) right in front of people of all ages, in an interactive and accessible way, is a proven method of luring people into your brand, ready to buy when the time is right (assuming you still make that type of car a decade or two later…). Consider also that, in response to a preposterous exclusivity deal between Porsche and Electronic Arts, tuner-turned-manufacturer Ruf gained notoriety as ‘the video game Porsche’ worldwide, seeing them grow as a brand as a result.

Car manufacturers have known this stuff for years, even commissioning one-make racing games as a somewhat brave form of this product placement tactic – see the Ford Racing series, the brilliantly immersive Need For Speed: Porsche 2000 and the more recent Ferrari Challenge: Trofeo Pirelli for big-name examples.

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Nike ONE 2022 concept from Gran Turismo 4 (2004)

Being able to piggyback a gaming franchise as globally renowned as Gran Turismo gives a better guarantee of success, of course. Even Nike, a non-automotive brand, got involved as part of Gran Turismo 4 with the Nike ONE 2022 concept, designed by Phil Frank and his team.

Conceived as a gym session on (hub-less) wheels, this sci-fi human-powered sports car has never existed in reality and never will, but could bang wheels with GT-Rs and Zondas at Circuit de la Sarthe in your living room anyway… with a big red ‘tick’ down the side of it.

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The concept ran on human energy and is driven head-first...

But after a sportswear brand had broken the ice, it was Citroën who forged the first full-blown collaboration between a car manufacturer and a games developer with a purpose-designed concept car.

The concept came from a collaboration between Polyphony boss Kazunori Yamauchi and his childhood friend, Takumi Yamamoto, who at the time was a designer for Citroën.

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Early moodboard for the GTbyCITROËN, by Takumi Yamamoto

“I became a car designer because I saw a photo of a Lamborghini Jota. Simply that experience made me a car designer. Don't you think it's amazing? This is the power of the design: to change someone’s life. I thought ‘I want to design car like this’, and to do so, became a car designer,” Yamamoto told Car Design News via email.

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More of Yamamoto’s sketches, from his website

While Citroën were not especially interested in selling a supercar, Yamamoto found a way to create “my ‘Jota’ for the next generation” after looking at motor shows and realising that, in practice, they’re often a poor method of getting people up close to new cars.

“People have got to come to the place, pay, then it’s overcrowded and they can't really see or touch or try the car – and of course, you cannot own it. Plus, after two months (one month before the show and one month after the show), people forget about it… but it costs millions and millions. So I said, ‘Why don't we change the way we present our cars?’”

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Why queue up to see a concept car from afar when you could ‘drive’ one?

“I noticed that video games’ visual ability was getting closer to the 3D renderers we use in design studios. On top of that, it’s connected to the network! Then, as long as you’ve got a PS3 connected to internet, you don't need to go to the show – you can see, turn, drive and you can even own it! And if you like it, you can drive it as long as you want. It doesn't disappear in two months! It’s a kind of ‘long tail’ phenomenon for the automotive world.”

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Image taken in Gran Turismo 5 (2010, PS3)

In March 2008, after Geneva, he finally decided to pitch this idea to Jean-Pierre Ploué, and then Polyphony Digital, who both gave it the green light. The result was the stunning GTbyCITROËN, a 777-horsepower fuel-cell supercar inspired by samurai armour and Super GT, that featured the kind of overlapping skin-like surfaces other concept cars have only recently caught up with.

As well as being inserted into GT5: Prologue, it appeared for real at the Paris Motor Show that autumn as a full-size one-off show car, which gained a V8 (quietly donated by Ford) so it could be driven around, blowing people’s minds as was originally intended.

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Image taken in real life (from Yamamoto’s website)

A couple of years later, a Formula 1 team fancied a go. Adrian Newey of Red Bull Racing wanted to see what real-world technology was truly capable of, outside of a racing series’ restrictions. This led to the breathtaking Red Bull X1, a closed-cockpit, covered-wheel single seater with ~1500 horsepower and, importantly, a vacuum fan system akin to that of the Chaparral 2J or Gordon Murray’s Brabham BT46b.

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Red Bull X1 poses with a (probably slower) stunt plane, in GT5

It was at the limit of both physics and sense, frankly, as it could all but cut real-world lap records in half… but the shape of it, a swept-back delta-wing with skeletal suspension and mid-wings reaching out to missile-like front wheel pods, was utterly captivating – perhaps lending some inspiration to Newey’s production-bound follow-up project, the Aston Martin Valkyrie, with its top body being like a smooth, tight skin over the ferocious powertrain and aero channels within.

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Full-size display model – non-functional, which is probably for the best

Meanwhile, Yamamoto had recognised that this whole format could go further: “Through my GT by Citroën experience, I started to feel the potential of this collaboration. I started to feel Polyphony Digital should do this with all other OEMs.” He now works with them through his own company, as a ‘design supervisor’ or consultant.

In 2013, Vision Gran Turismo was thus established during the launch of GT6, creating a more structured challenge to the wider automotive world to show us the extent of their imagination. The results have varied wildly in style, performance and creativity. Some are bordering on pure fantasy, some are merely exaggerated takes of a manufacturer’s design language, others are just race-modified versions of existing cars.

For some further reading on all of these, click on the ‘Vision Gran Turismo  – The Cars’ tab in the sidebar.

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The first and most recent Gran Turismo concepts (GT Sport, 2018)

But while it’s fun to see all these off-the-wall concepts, what broader purpose do they truly serve, if any?

“GT by Citroën for me was a message to the next generation, and I think the Vision GT cars also can be strong message to the next generation – and a big motivation for car designers,” says Yamamoto.

As alluded to earlier, don’t underestimate the power of inspiration…

Some of that inspiration is already happening. There are numerous student design studies with aspects of gaming included, whether it’s augmented reality (AR) displays projected onto the windows, virtual reality (VR) headset-based HUDs, or even a full game played using the car itself (see this RCA project).

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Jaguar Land Rover’s augmented-reality windscreen displays

Even the grown-ups at JLR have been experimenting; four years ago they showed how AR could act as a driving aid, whether checking for pedestrians, or beating a lap time, or covering hilly terrain off-road.

OEMs and specialist technology companies are well on the way towards expanding the simple, miniscule HUD seen in some cars (merely a simplified auxiliary IP) into a full-sized overlay of information, with clear graphics that can be processed at speed without being distracting – a bit like… yes, a video game display.

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Rimac C_Two

A more extreme example comes from Croatian electric powertrain suppliers and hypercar builders, Rimac. The C_Two, revealed at the Geneva Motor Show, features Level 4 autonomous driving capability, facilitating a feature they call a ‘Driving Coach’. This system uses circuit data to have the car drive itself around two laps of a race track, showing you on-screen where to brake, what line to take and so on, all while it’s busy using >1900 horsepower to rearrange your internal organs.

The driver then takes over to try matching it, with the car able to give telemetry-based feedback based on its own internal benchmarks. It’s the closest that reality can get to letting you beat your ‘ghost car’ as per video games. An evolution of this system could even superimpose one onto the windscreen.

Rumours suggest that the next GT-R will have similar functionality, too, which brings things somewhat full circle for the Gran Turismo hero car…

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Alpine Vision Gran Turismo, with an A110 (GT6, 2015)

In the meantime, though, we often hear people lament that concept cars are no longer as wild and exploratory as they once were, that they’re too often just decorated or un-matured production car designs meant to drum up some hype before a proper launch. These people should relish Vision Gran Turismo, as it allows major and minor car makers to fully indulge themselves again, without fretting about feasibility studies or any such buzz-killing end game.

That the brands themselves can use the rolling design contest to their commercial benefit as well only ensures that we all get to admire pure, unfiltered automotive design passion projects from the world’s biggest and best.

The difference these days is: we get to play with them, too.

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Don’t forget to read through the bonus section in the sidebar below the top image, for a look at who’s tried and who hasn’t among the Vision Gran Turismo participants.