By John Gaudiosi
FORTUNE -- While Sony (SNE) is pushing its new PlayStation 4 hardware this fall, the PS4 won't be getting Polyphony Digital's Gran Turismo 6. Sony is focusing on the 80 million PlayStation 3 global gamers for its newest internally developed racing simulation, which drives into worldwide retailers on Dec. 6.
The franchise is celebrating its 15th anniversary with sales of more than 70 million copies around the globe. This year, Gran Turismo 5 surpassed 10 million units sold for PS3 since its November 2010 launch, making it one of the best-selling PS3 franchises ever. The critically acclaimed racing game has grossed over $2.5 billion for Sony, and video game analyst Peter Warman of research firm Newzoo believes GT6 will drive strong sales this fall and beyond.
"We estimate Sony's game software revenues have totaled $1.6 billion in the first six months of 2013, down 11% compared to the same period last year," said Warman. "The $300 million that GT6 brings in this year will generate approximately 10% of Sony's game software revenues."
Despite having stiff competition on the racetrack with Electronic Arts' (EA) Need for Speed Rivals and Microsoft's (MSFT) Forza Motorsport 5, GT6 has a strong following in the U.S. According to Newzoo, there are 45 million Need for Speed franchise gamers in the U.S., 36 million Gran Turismo gamers and 24 million Forza gamers. Warman said of these GT players, 35% are men ages 21 to 25 and another 35% are female.
Like Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto V, developer Polyphony Digital is pushing the capabilities of the PS3 to the limit with GT6. The game launches with over 1,200 cars, including 120 brand new to the franchise such as the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray 15th Anniversary Edition, the 2007 Ferrari FXX and the 2012 Tesla Model S Signature Performance.
"Whenever there are new developments by automobile manufacturers and new technology is introduced, we have to work to recreate that in the game," said Kazunori Yamauchi, CEO of Polyphony Digital and producer of Gran Turismo. "When there's a new drive system like all the hybrids use -- and there are a lot of different types of hybrids out there, we have to make sure that we can be compatible with all of them. There are all sorts of four-wheel drive systems out there, as well. We really work hard to match what's out there in the automotive industry and properly simulate everything."
GT6 features 37 locations, including the new Matterhorn and Gran Turismo Arena, and 100 track layouts, including circuits such as Ascari, Spain and the Silverstone, Goodwood, and Mount Panorama tracks. Every aspect of the game, from the way each vehicle handles on the road to the grooves on the asphalt of Laguna Sega, has been meticulously detailed to bring an authentic racing experience for purists. Of course, the game can also be played in a more mainstream arcade mode, which lets players put the pedal to the medal without the challenges of a hardcore simulation or epic career experience. And anyone can appreciate the real variable weather, daytime and astronomical simulations that bring an experience like Le Mans 24 Hours to life just as it occurred in 2013.
"GT6 will continue to evolve over time," said Taku Imasaki, U.S. producer for GT6. "Gran Turismo 5 came out three years ago but after 30 patches, it's a totally different game. The same thing will happen with Gran Turismo 6, where we're going to continuously feed our fans with new cars and more innovative projects like the Vision GT program."
Sony and Polyphony Digital have enlisted 20 car manufacturers -- including Volkswagen, Peugeot, Aston Martin, BMW, Honda (HMC), Infiniti, Audi, Nissan, and Mercedes-Benz -- to create their dream concept vehicles. Each of these cars will be released as a downloadable vehicle in GT6, beginning with the Mercedes-Benz AMG Vision GT. Hubert Lee, the creative director of the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Studio in California, was able to construct a supercar without worrying about things like government EPA restrictions, crash tests or fuel economy. And at the Los Angeles Auto Show last month, the car made its official real-world debut as well.
"As cool as it is to see this car in person, it doesn't drive," said Lee. "It's not a real car. It's a mock-up. But in the game you can actually drive it like the real car. Mr. Yamouchi told me that he drove it through Nurburging (Germany) in the game, and he said it was pretty cool to drive it and it was pretty fast."
Sony had the Vision GT drivable in a pair of sit-down simulation "sleds" at the Mercedes-Benz booth in Los Angeles, right next to the full-size concept car. There were also two driving sleds at the Nissan booth with GT Academy branding. Sony and Nissan have partnered over the past three years to offer video game racing enthusiasts the opportunity to become a professional race car driver.
"This year we had over 400,000 gamers competing online and we cut that down to 32 based on their performance competing against each other and those 32 went to New York to compete on sleds head-to-head," said Jon Brancheau, vice president of Nissan Marketing. "We narrowed it down to 16 drivers and sent them to Silverstone Raceway in England, one of the most famous racetracks, to get trained for a week racing GT-Rs and 370Zs. We filmed the entire thing and turned it into a reality TV show on Spike, and the winner ends up being trained by Nissan."
2011 GT Academy winner Bryan Heitkotter and 2012 winner Steve Doherty have transitioned well from virtual to real racing. Heitkotter earned a pole position and a 3rd place finish in the Continental Challenge Series at Road America this year and earned a podium finish at Dubai 24 Hours last year. Doherty earned the Sunoco Hard Charger Award in the Pirelli World Challenge Series race at Mid-Ohio and had a second-place finish in the Blancpain Endurance Series race at France's Circuit Paul Ricard.
"Playing Gran Turismo you just naturally learn how to drive, and it's actually not so much of a surprise for me that the players of Gran Turismo are actually doing really well in racing once they're out there," said Yamouchi, who is a professional racer himself. "I think there are a lot more players out there that have this innate skill for racing still buried in the crowds and I'm really interested in seeing how these people will eventually change the racing world from here on out."
Polyphony Digital is also inspiring innovation in the automotive world beyond the Vision concept cars. The game makers are working with Toyota (TM) and its subsidiary Denso to allow Japanese gamers to take a PS3 memory stick and plug it into the Toyota 86 GT. When they race a lap on any real-world track featured in the game, the data is captured on the card and when plugged into a PS3 that lap is replicated virtually in the game. While this technology is currently confirmed for Japan, Imasaki hopes it expands to the U.S. gamers around the world will have the option of connecting the real world with the virtual through a new Gran Turismo app.
And this cutting-edge technology is focused solely on PS3. The Gran Turismo franchise will be heading to PS4 in the near future. Yamouchi said his studio has released two games for PS2 and now two for PS3, which means the next two games will race exclusively on PS4.
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