1982 emerged as the most profitable year yet in the video game industry. According to its annual report, Mattel Electronics, the video game-developing division of American multinational toymaker Mattel, provided 25% of the company’s revenue and 50% of the operating income. In its October 1982 stockholders’ report, Mattel announced its electronic division had, so far that year, posted a nearly $100 million profit on almost $500 million in sales, a threefold increase compared to 1981.
Back in 1979-80 when Mattel’s Intellivision home video game console was released, its games were being developed by an outside firm, APh Technological Consulting. Realizing that potential profits were much greater with first-party developed software, Mattel formed its own in-house software development group, The Application Software Programmers. To keep these and later programmers from being hired away by rival Atari, where employees were fleeing to form their own independent game companies, their identity and work location were kept a closely guarded secret.
With an ever-growing team of programmers turning out one commercial hit after another, Mattel pursued to expand its success to the rapidly emerging European market and established an office in the Sophia-Antipolis International Science Park near the old town of Valbonne, between Cannes and Nice on the French Riviera. The new French office, staffed by programmers recruited from both London and Paris, would focus on the development of games for the Intellivision and Colecovision consoles.
At the end of 1982, Patrick Aubry came across a press announcement in the French weekly news magazine L’Express about Mattel’s newly established European office and its search for programmers to join the team. Aubry had studied aeronautics at SupAéro, one of the top aerospace engineering schools in the mid-1970s. In 1978 he earned his master’s in Computer Science and Automation and landed his first job, working on robotics and industrial control processes at Bertin & Cie in Aix en Provence, 20 miles north of Marseille. The job resulted in extensive programming work and while it appealed to him, he eventually wanted to get closer to the Nice region, where he had attended school and responded to the article featured in L’Express. Despite never having programmed or even played a single video game before, he was drawn to the prospect of programming and optimization products that would be released into the rapidly growing consumer market. Intrigued by the opportunity, he successfully secured the job and became a part of the team in February 1983.
While Aubry and the team would work on a number of Intellivision and ColecoVision titles, things were taking a turn for the worse back in the States. The venture into the video game market, which only a year earlier had a sense of limitless possibilities, proved ill-fated. The North American video game market crashed in late 1983, putting Mattel on the verge of bankruptcy with a $394 million loss. Consequently, Mattel Electronics was shut down the following year but due to French labor laws, the French office couldn’t be closed legally, and Mattel would have to find a buyer. Eventually, CEO Tim Scanlan found investors and the division became independent in April 1984 and renamed Nice Ideas.
Without the financial backing from Mattel and the need to build up a customer portfolio, the team continued to work on ongoing titles some of which ultimately remained unreleased. To ensure a steady cash flow, the team also took in other projects of varied forms and would during that time take control of a flight simulator for Sierra On-Line.
As Aubry had studied aeronautics to design planes and rockets he had the theoretical point of view and knew all the behavioral equations of an airplane. This enabled him to recreate a simplified but close-to-reality flight model of a small aerobatics stunt plane. The undertaking was huge and Aubry would spend a full year realizing the characteristics of the Pitts Special, the most maneuverable of all stunt planes, along with recreating the many well-known maneuvers of ariel aerobatics performed by stunt pilots in international competitions.
With the intention of not being just another-flight simulator, Aubry programmed a special software routine that would analyze the acrobatic figures flown by the player and give a score based on how closely they adhered to the ideal flight curve. The routines were later used by CEO, Scanlan as a basis for a writing recognition software upon which he built a company.
During the final phase of development, Aubry undertook the 4000-mile journey from France to California to meet with Sierra On-Line and acrobatic pilot and flying coach Alan Geringer. The following two weeks were dedicated to making sure everything was as close to reality as possible. Over the summer of 1985 Stunt Flyer was completed and Sierra On-Line published it in September for the Commodore 64, as its first published game developed in Europe.
Stunt Flyer, developed by Nice Ideas in France, was published by Sierra On-Line for the Commodore 64 in September 1985
Stunt Flyer came with a 48-page elaborate manual, introducing the player to the principal of aerodynamics and the world of aerial acrobatics with many of the most popular maneuvers described in detail.
The manual was created by Annette Childs who was responsible for producing various documentation and manuals for Sierra On-Line during the period
Stunt Flyer was unique in its flight simulator approach and required a lot of practice before being able to pull off stunts, especially the more difficult ones.
Stunts were done from a 1st-person pilot perspective, with gauges and environment visible. Replay and Judging were shown from the side in 2D.
If you managed to make 15 acrobatics maneuvres each to an honorable score of 50 you would be eligible to enter the Sierra Stunt Flyer Competition where you would have to chain a sequence of maneuvres together in the game’s Competition mode. The sequence could be saved to disk and mailed to Sierra On-Line for a chance to win a $1,000 grand prize and the title Most Skilled Stunt Pilot (entries had to be postmarked by March 31, 1986)
While Nice Ideas had built up a host of clients, severe delays in receiving payments led to cash flow challenges. After a few years, the company ultimately ceased operations, resulting in most British programmers returning to England and the majority of French programmers seeking alternative employment opportunities within the science park.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Sierra On-Line grew into one of the most prolific companies in the industry.
Aubry continued to work in technology before starting to teach mathematics in the 2010s. He’s now retired and enjoying the good life on the French Riviera.
Sources: Intellivisiongames.com, Gamotek interview with Patrick Aubry, Wikipedia, LinkedIn, The Dot Eaters…