Charting the development of a game-changing AI

Gran Turismo changed the video game landscape when it was released in 1997. The racing simulator, developed by Polyphony Digital and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE) for PlayStation, sported hyperrealistic vehicle details, exhilarating physics, and stunning graphics that catapulted Gran Turismo to massive success as a franchise, with more than 80 million units sold across 16 releases.

In April 2020, Sony announced a new global initiative called Sony AI, focused on advancing AI research and development to unleash human creativity and imagination. This team of engineers and researchers, stationed across three continents, set an ambitious goal in partnership with Polyphony Digital and SIE: to create an AI agent that could race competitively against the best human Gran Turismo drivers in the world. They named the agent Gran Turismo Sophy™ (GT Sophy), a portmanteau of “Sony” and “Polyphony” inspired by the Greek word for wisdom.

Keeping with the franchise’s legendary standards of hyperrealism, Sony AI committed to training GT Sophy from scratch using reinforcement learning. This meant the team would subject GT Sophy to the same parameters as human drivers and expect it to learn from its wins and its mistakes. (Compare this to non-playing characters in video games whose behaviors and personalities are predetermined.) Could GT Sophy learn and improve based on “experience”—and if so, how quickly and under what circumstances?

The answer: GT Sophy learned fast. Very fast. By summer 2021, the agent was ready to compete against human players in a series of races called “Race Together”—and Sony AI wanted to document it on film. Enter Godfrey Dadich’s team of storytellers.

Human ingenuity. High-stakes competition. Globetrotting scenes. We couldn’t resist the project, but Sony AI was a relatively nascent organization. Yes, they wanted to tell GT Sophy’s story, but their team of experts, spanning Europe, Japan, and the United States, were also researching AI’s potential in ethics, sensors, and even gastronomy. What was Sony AI’s larger message? How did it want to show up in the world?

We proposed kicking off our collaboration with some core strategy work, inspired by GDP’s practice of The New Editorial. Our team of strategists, led by head of strategy and partner Danielle Bird, interviewed leaders across Sony, Polyphony Digital, and SIE. They then worked closely with Sony AI to develop an editorial charter that would function as the lens through which all of Sony AI’s storytelling would be told. After a series of workshops, Sony AI ratified a new charter: “Where AI empowers creativity.”

Meanwhile, GDP’s team of journalists leveraged those same interviews to unearth a compelling narrative for a short-form documentary tracing GT Sophy’s origin story to the “Race Together” starting line. During that process, however, GDP discovered something: Sony AI didn’t have just one story to tell. It had many.

“Our interviews with Sony AI, Polyphony Digital, and SIE revealed what’s so powerful about what those organizations do,” says head of editorial and partner Marcus Wohlsen. “Sony’s history of technology brims with iconic products, from the transistor radio to the PlayStation® 5. It’s a history of innovation and discovery—and that fed the vision for the stories we needed to tell.”

The Sony AI team comprises some 75 expert AI researchers and engineers from around the world, led by CEO Dr. Hiroaki Kitano.

GDP recommended that Sony AI develop a storytelling lineup using a mix of formats: docu-style films, well-designed technical articles, and social extensions. Together, these stories would introduce Sony AI’s mission to the world and demonstrate its expertise to key audiences, which include the international tech community, global gamers, Sony employees, and the press. GDP would unify this storytelling with a bold design language that confidently introduced Sony AI’s vision and personality to the world.

As an introduction to GT Sophy, the first film, a nine-minute documentary, wouldn’t simply be a story of mankind meets AI. It would be about people creating a machine to push human potential, featuring an impressive cast of characters—from scientists and engineers to gaming legends (Kazunori Yamauchi, Polyphony Digital’s CEO) and champion Gran Turismo racers (Shotaro Ryu).

GDP developed a bold graphics system for all of Sony AI’s storytelling; the color palette, typography, and graphic elements unified the company’s brand and technical expertise with the playfulness of video gameplay.
What does an AI racing agent need to perfect in order to compete with the world’s best human drivers? Incredible speed, impressive control—and good sportsmanship.

Production kicked off in late summer 2021, just as COVID-19 infections in the US were escalating due to the Delta variant. GDP’s video team, led by executive producer and partner Paula Chowles, had no choice but to produce the film remotely. (Luckily, this is something we’ve become experts at; read more about our remote film productions for Okta and Nike.) “We conducted remote interviews at all hours. We had a crew in Tokyo, and a producer in Boston running that Tokyo shoot,” says Wohlsen, who served as the documentary’s story producer. During the final “Race Together” competition in October 2021, GDPers watched the races and results over Zoom while staying in constant touch with a crew that was capturing footage on location.

“Having no boots on the ground is hard, and the time differences were extraordinary,” Chowles says. “It was important to Sony AI to acknowledge everyone who contributed. It can be tricky in a short piece to have so many voices, but we managed to create a great narrative.”

The grandeur of the film’s narrative was in no small part thanks to GT Sophy surpassing expectations during the races. The documentary needed to capture those nail-biting scenes while detailing the engineering that trained GT Sophy to tightly hug curves, seamlessly weave through competitors, and throttle its speed. GDP’s creative team designed a motion graphics system that bridged action-packed vignettes from Gran Turismo gameplay with technical explainers and chyrons that introduced Sony AI’s brand.

The resulting film, The Making of Gran Turismo Sophy: AI and the Quest for Superhuman Speed, debuted in February 2022 at a joint press conference hosted by Sony AI, Polyphony Digital, and SIE. “The piece itself is expansive in its storytelling and also really fun, and—I hate to use this word—hip. But there is a cool element that resonated with the Gran Turismo community,” Chowles says.

“As a researcher, it’s the highest achievement that you can get in the field—and honestly, not something I dreamt I would be a part of,” says Sony AI senior research scientist Piyush Khandelwal of the Nature magazine cover in The Team Behind GT Sophy.

The response to GT Sophy was massive: Nature magazine featured GT Sophy on its February 2022 cover. More than 400 publications in 30 countries covered GT Sophy, including The Wall Street Journal, WIRED, The Verge, and The Washington Post, driving billions of media impressions. On Sony AI’s YouTube channel, the nine-minute documentary has received more than 80,000 views. “GT Sophy was Sony AI’s first public milestone project. We’re excited to have collaborated with GDP on this very special project to let the world know about Sony AI and what we stand for,” says Erica Kato Marcus, director of strategies and partnerships at Sony AI.

To build on the momentum and excitement, GDP and Sony AI quickly moved into production on a three-part short film series called The Team Behind GT Sophy. As a follow-up, the series set out to explore the science, creativity, and ingenuity of AI innovation more deeply through the eyes of Sony AI’s international team. Each film was structured as a 10-minute chapter—charting the agent’s genesis, first test runs, and final tune-ups—and extended the story of The Making of. Using the same graphics system and visual language as the first film, the series seamlessly showcased the stories of 16 innovators in seven cities across three continents—from the Tokyo apartment where a Sony AI intern first tinkered with progenitors of GT Sophy to the Zurich complex where senior research scientists obsessively analyzed every spinout on massive monitors.

The three-part docu-series begins in a small Tokyo apartment during the COVID-19 pandemic, where Florian Fuchs, then an intern, ran simulations of Gran Turismo Sport on nine PlayStations—24/7.

Meanwhile, our team of journalists and art directors collaborated with Sony AI’s research scientists to design a series of through-written articles. (“At Sony AI, we think it’s very important that we share the research that we do,” explains Sony AI director Peter Wurman.) Targeting technical audiences, the stories detailed the science of GT Sophy from various aspects and were published on Sony AI’s website on a monthly basis. GDP design director Stravinski Pierre elevated each piece with original art direction that included photography, short-form videos, and infographics—all of which matched the films’ eye-catching look and feel. 

The Team Behind GT Sophy debuted on Sony AI’s YouTube channel in August 2022, with a rollout supported by a trailer and social extensions. Despite Sony AI being a newer player in the AI space, the storytelling collection conveys its mission, ambitions, and already iconic innovations with aplomb—a cinematic study of how AI can extend the limits of human potential. “GT Sophy is only the beginning of our journey,” Kato Marcus says. “We will continue to drive new experiences through the research and development of new AI technology.”