On the day that Gran Turismo Sport’s online services are switched off for good, Thomas Harrison-Lord reflects on how impactful the game was for his, and many others, sim racing outlook.
When it launched over six years ago, Gran Turismo Sport faced an uphill struggle.
Two main bugbears were apparent: ‘Only’ 162 cars and a lack of a ‘true’ Gran Turismo single-player campaign.
If you asked fans what made a Gran Turismo game, slowly gathering a vehicle collection while pushing through a lengthy campaign would likely be a popular answer.
Yet, initially, at least, GT Sport wasn’t able to facilitate the traditional Polyphony Digital reward loop.
To compound the issue, released just weeks prior was Microsoft’s Forza Motorsport 7, with over 700 vehicles and described by hyperbole dispenser Dan Greenawalt as “the most technically advanced and comprehensive racing game ever made.” As he streamed on Mixer, probably…
Worse, the stripped-down spin-off followed what is viewed (perhaps unfairly) by some as the franchise’s nadir – Gran Turismo 6. That title was released on the maligned PlayStation 3 platform after the resurgent PlayStation 4 had launched, without backwards compatibility to boot.
Consequently, and by a significant margin, it was the least sold numbered series entry. When GT Sport arrived, there was an existential crisis surrounding the potential demise of Sony’s tentpole driving game.
Cold Start Issues
Really twisting the knife, initially, was the ‘leagues’ component of the game. The closest it got to receiving a traditional campaign wasn’t even available at launch.
When it did turn up two months later, the offering was paltry. Revisiting the platform earlier this week, there are over 300 events to complete, but it is easy to forget just how barebones this mode was for that first year or so. Even when the monthly support was on song, these themed events lacked the simple joy of unlocking bonus vehicles.
Instead, the focus was on reaching the (for some) mythical level 50 rating. After each event, you received experience points counting towards levels. Progress was slower than a Kei car, however. In theory, not necessarily an issue, as it transpired GT Sport was a live service offering designed to be played bit by bit over several years.
Except, after completing everything the game has to offer and playing it weekly with friends from the day of release to the launch of Gran Turismo 7, I’m sat at level 47. I am not saying 50 isn’t achievable, but you would need to complete the same races repeatedly ad nauseam.
I just couldn’t handle the banality of it – I’d rather listen to Nickelback on repeat for the rest of my life than revisit that ‘Nostalgic 1979’ race at Le Mans again just to grind for points.
Then there was the car tuning, which was simply five levels of power and weight reduction. No saving up for car parts here, sadly, robbing that satisfying feeling of individualising your ride.
The Slow Burn
Slowly but surely, however, it chipped away at the darkened souls of cynical virtual racing fans. For one, the car models were supreme. The recreations were jewel-like, a designer at Bulgari would be impressed by the detail.
The engine sounds were still a bit dull, but a significant step forward in the context of its predecessors. While extremely limited in its functionality, having a driving title on a base PS4 console working in VR was a technical marvel.
This release also introduced the concept of a daily workout – driving more than 26.219 miles each day unlocked a reward. The photo mode and scapes locations took gaming photography to new heights and for the first time in GT history, you could create your own liveries and share them online with others.
For those who grew up lapping Deep Forest Raceway and Trial Mountain (hands up in the comments below), some of the fictional venues created for Sony’s leading driving title are woven into the fabric of our hobby.
GT Sport, perhaps more than any other entry post-PSOne, delivered beguiling new circuits from the creative minds of Yamauchi-san et al that are just as impactful as the first time you toured Autumn Ring.
Autodrome Lago Maggiore, with its sumptuous surroundings, flowing corners and banked hairpin has etched its way into the pantheon of Gran Turismo greats. Dragon Trail too. Sardegna, well, not so much.
The point is for a budding 12-year-old in 2017, receiving a PS4 for Christmas, Maggiore is their mecca. The modern-day equivalent of experiencing Grand Valley for the very first time in the ‘90s.
For those who were looking for a sterner test, the Lewis Hamilton Time Trial DLC remains one of the toughest challenges in gaming. This was a set of 10 optional challenges against the clock with the aim of beating the seven-time world champion’s times. Achieving gold is a commitment, but the diamond-level targets would see even Igor Fraga sweat.
In truth, the ‘Sport’ element of the bifurcated nomenclature was the main draw, not the traditional ‘Gran Turismo’ preface.
For many racing game users on console, sport mode was an alien concept. Looking to the Elo rating system popularised by the likes of League of Legends, and in simulation circles iRacing, ranked racing was offered up ‘to all’ in a bite-sized accessible fashion.
Sure, to play games online using a PS4, required a subscription to PlayStation Plus. However, that worked across all games, not just one platform, and once you had secured a relatively affordable console and a copy of GT Sport, all subsequent car and track additions were free updates.
This dramatically lowered the barrier to entry into the competitive world of safety and driver ratings.
Weekly, there would be a playlist of three ‘daily races’, a new event starting every 15-30 minutes. Before entering, you set a qualifying time and then once the event began, you were placed onto a grid by a matchmaking system that aligned the competitors with your ratings.
In itself, not an all-new innovation. But, in terms of taking that technology to the masses, a breakthrough.
As you continued to race, your ratings increased (or sometimes decreased after a fit of vengeful retaliation… ahem) and once out of the C and B-ratings, you could enjoy a clean-ish competitive race at any time of day without the need to create a lobby and hope for the best.
Revelatory for those outside of iRacing’s ecosystem, it helped inspire a new generation of competitive sim racers. For the very best, it was (and still is) capped off by the Gran Turismo World Series competition that tours the world for in-person finales to determine the quickest competitors.
When deeply embedded in mature, PC, sim racing it can be easy to forget just how impactful the Gran Turismo series is at drawing new people in. Young, old or simply time-starved, GT Sport set the template for a service that provided the essence of league racing on a whim.
If that whim was at 1 pm on a Tuesday during a lunch break, so be it. You too could take part in a competitive online race in Toyota AE86s around Laguna Seca.
Its influence can be seen now, the entire game essentially being a testbed for Gran Turismo 7. The likes of F1 23 with an overhauled ranking system last year and the current Forza Motorsport’s Featured Multiplayer mode each owe GT Sport a debt of gratitude.
Time To Say Goodbye
In the fullness of time, despite a rocky start, GT Sport flourished. According to recent Insomniac Games leaks, it ultimately achieved nearly 13 million sales (only 31 per cent of which were digital). That’s the second best-selling game in the series’ history, ahead of the lionised Gran Turismo 4 and 1997 original.
Was it the strongest of the breed? Nope, not even close. Even online, I had more fun with shuffle races in Gran Turismo 5. But it is one of the most significant. Not only did it set the tone for all future console game online features, but it also allowed a new generation of sim racing to practice their trade online – vital if our little corner of the internet is to be sustainable.
Earlier today, 31st January 2024, GT Sport’s server connection was pulled, not only removing the sport mode but lobbies, liveries, the mileage store and daily workouts. Thankfully there was a fresh patch so most of the single-player content and challenges remain accessible. Phew. Maybe one day I will hit level 50 after all?
The online components may be gone forever, but the impact they made on racing video games is seminal.