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Made in France

#MadeInFrance 09 : Hebdogiciel, the kamikaze seahorse

Par Hoagie 16/02/2020 1 commentaire

Since I started my series of articles #MadeInFrance, I wrote about the French computer game scene, several famous or obscure French computer games, and a computer game company. Another subject I wanted to cover was Gallic gaming magazines. I could have started with Tilt (the best video game magazine of the '80s and early '90s, by far), Joystick or even Génération 4. But I chose Hebdogiciel, an unusual magazine to say the least, and seminal for better or worse. If you thought PC Zone was gross or Amiga Power was irreverent, you ain't seen nothing yet.

titre New Rose

In 1983, the French computer market was a small mess. The USA had the Apple II, the UK had the ZX81 and ZX Spectrum, and the C64 was a huge success in both. In France, there was no clear winner, and the distribution of computers and software was pretty bad (Commodore was an edifying example). I could also mention our specific standards: French TV use the Peritel connector, the SECAM system (Nintendo and Sega had to make French versions of their 16-bit consoles), and we use AZERTY keyboards instead of QWERTY (games that used 'AQOP' or 'WASD' keys to move made our lives miserable). There was hardly room for more than one magazine for a specific system (Micro'Oric for Oric, 99 Magazine for TI-99/4A, L'Atarien for Atari 400, Pom's for Apple II...), several formats didn't even have one, and multi-formats magazines like Tilt or L'Ordinateur Individuel weren't very useful to learn programming. That's what Gérard Ceccaldi must have thought when he was looking for some documentation for his new TI-99/4A. He wrote a book of listings for this computer, and used the royalties to fund a magazine, without any experience in publishing. Promoted during the Sicob trade event, the first issue of Hebdogiciel came out on the newsstands on 7th October 1983. Named as a portmanteau of "hebdomadaire" ("weekly") and "logiciel" ("software"), and using a cute seahorse as a mascot, Hebdogiciel was not exactly a magazine, rather a weekly 16-page newspaper focused exclusively on the software listings that the readers would send them for all kinds of home computers and handheld calculators. To motivate the amateur programmers, there was an attractive incentive: 1000 francs for each page of listing, 10000 francs for the best program of the past month, and a trip to California for the best program of the past quarter.

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The glorious first issue

The success was immediate: the first issue sold more than 12000 copies, and the team received 600 listings for the sole month of December. Gérard Ceccaldi was even invited in a few TV shows ("Ordinal 1" on TF1, "Télé Micro" on Antenne 2). The repartition of the listings during the first two months gives an interesting insight of the French home computer market in 1983: with around 80000 users, the TI-99/4A was the source of 20% of the listings, followed by the Oric 1 (14% to 19%) and the Sinclair ZX81 (10%). Next came the TRS-80, Apple II, Commodore VIC-20 and 64 (between 5% and 6% each), the Thomson TO7 (3% to 5%), and the freshly imported ZX Spectrum (2,5%). During its first months of existence, Hebdogiciel had a light tone and featured a column about computing in schools. Concerned by the high price of software in French shops, they decided to sell a selection of the best games by mail order at a more reasonable price. When Atari started to release adaptations of their most famous arcade games on home computers, Hebdogiciel ordered 680 units in June 1984, but during the following weeks, the order was delayed several times, sent piece by piece, and some of the adaptations on sale were actually not available yet! To explain the situation to their readers and clients, Hebdogiciel ran on their 50th issue (28th September 1984) an article on the front page with the headline "Atari nous a tous pris pour des cons !" ("Atari took all of us for fools!").

This is when Hebdogiciel stopped being nice. And that's when it became legendary.

titre Anarchy in (the country below) the UK

If you look at old American computing magazines, you'll notice a very serious tone, respecting for both the readers and the industry, mainly because of the age of the readership. In the UK, where many computer users were teenagers, lots of the numerous computer magazines, especially in the gaming sector, used a laddish, tongue-in-cheek humor. However, few of them came close to what Hebdogiciel represented during two years: a newspaper often described as the Canard Enchaîné or Hara-Kiri / Charlie Hebdo of the computer market, mixing the muckracker mentality of the former and the trashy humor of the latter. As soon as they added four pages of short news and reviews to their contents, they became renowned for their ruthless mockery and disdain of the industry, their insults to companies and their bashing of bad software, in a writing style so screwy it sometimes looked like some texts were written on crack. It became even goofier in April 1985 when the comics author Carali started to fill every empty space with loony strips. In its first overview of the French CPC market in September 1986, the British magazine Amstrad Action granteed a paragraph to Hebdogiciel, and it looked decidedly too weird for them.

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Too wacky for Amstrad Action (
the translated excerpt is the intro of the review of «Murder on the Mississippi»)

At least, Hebdogiciel was usually trustworthy: if they spoke highly of a game, you could buy it with your eyes closed. «Lode Runner», «Boulder Dash», «The Dam Busters», «Raid on Bungeling Bay», «Impossible Mission», «Elite», «Rescue on Fractalus!», «Little Computer People», «The Pawn» are some of the games they praised. They also had lots for respect for Amstrad (well, just for one year!) and Jack Tramiel and his motto "computers for the masses, not the classes". The journalist Michel Desangles was immediately enthusiastic about the Atari ST and remained a fan of this computer for years. However, they had no mercy for bad or average software or computers. They could afford their freedom of speech: they had absolutely no commercial tie with the computer game industry - the printed ads were bought only by computer shops and manufacturers. Here are a few samples of their colorful language:

  • «Le Casse» (Apple II): "It's lame. You're going to say that we're scumbags and that we can only speak ill of new products. Yet, for this one at least, discussion is not possible: written in Basic, the programming is so bad that it takes several seconds to analyze the messages you enter on the screen and then the program has to look for the answers on the floppy disk, a catastrophe! You must also enter your questions by necessarily starting your sentences with the word 'I', otherwise your Apple doesn't understand anything. Lame, I tell you! And to prove that we don't talk nonsense, here is a small sample of the cracked listing, you will notice the first lines that indeed understand only what starts with "I", and lines 562 and following that manage the insults that you can't hurl at this crappy program."
  • «The Village Underworld» (ZX Spectrum): "Do you like adventure games? Do you enjoy nice graphics, powerful syntax analysis, original scenarios, jokes at every opportunity? Then don't buy «The Village Underworld». For the graphics, no comment: there's none. The scenario shines through its absolute worthlessness: you're in a village and you must find a hidden treasure. The syntax analysis has at its disposal a wonderful dictionary of forty-four words, among which aren't included 'shit' or 'fuck', a dramatic oversight for a game in English. Avoid it like your mother-in-law."
  • «Beach-Head II» (ZX Spectrum): "I've just come up with a new name for the company commonly known as U.S. Gold: U.S. Poop. Wait, wait, don't go. I have my reasons, and I'm gonna tell you why. I loaded on my Spectrum the soft «Beach-Head II». I blame myself. Actually, it's pathetic, and more than pathetic. The colours are mishandled, the music is absolute rubbish, the sounds are worse than anything else and the interest is almost non-existent. So I'm starting to doubt the veracity of the name of the company U.S. Gold that's supposed to group the best titles on the American market. Was it really necessary to make such shitware? [...] Besides, the colours are drooling all over the place. I'm ashamed."
  • "Woe is us! We who believed that U.S. Gold was still one of the few software houses that made sense and didn't just produce debilitating junk. Woe is us! U.S. Gold has just signed a contract with one of the world's worst publishers, one of the computer errors of our civilization, I named Scott Adams. What's Scott Adams? I won't beat around the bush: shit. First, softwares that start with a long speech about piracy annoy me, especially when they do it the Scott Adams way [...]. If the game sucks, it's not going to work at all. Scott Adams, it's the same software for every adventure, the same structure, the same background, the same vocabulary. Humorless, heavy, boring games, in short, as I told you, shit."
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The small Hebdogiciel team in their own photo romance (summer 1985)
L to R : Martine Chevalier, Fred (?), Carali, Benoîte Picaud, Michel Desangles, Gérard Ceccaldi

Hebdogiciel reached the top of its "popularity" with its outrageous headlines and its long articles about the computer industry. Here are some of their major articles:
  • "Cet Ordinateur est dangereux !" (30th November 1984): the extremely enthusiastic review of the Amstrad CPC 464, which excels at all levels: the extraordinary value for money, the ease of use, the speed and quality of the Locomotive BASIC. Hebdogiciel headlined "This Computer Is Dangerous!" to warn that the CPC could be a game changer, and it turned out to be perfectly true: the CPC quickly became the most popular 8-bit home computer in France, and this review certainly helped. This article, one of their most famous (François Quentin, n°2 at Amstrad France, wrote later a book about his years at Amstrad in the literary style of Hebdogiciel and named it "Ces Ordinateurs sont dangereux"), marks the beginning of a long love/hate relationship with Amstrad...
  • "20 ordinateurs sur le grill !" (14th December 1984): a comparative review of 20 computers with lots of criterias (speed, quality of the keyboard...), and even their mathematical accuracy: a variable equal to 2 underwent 20 times the square root function, then 20 times the square function, and of course the result had to be as close to 2 as possible.
  • "Désolé, l'informatique c'est de la merde !" (2nd August 1985): in a time where computers are seen as a golden goose, Hebdogiciel kills the mood and states that "story, but computing is shit". Most games are bad, learning programming is a chore, educational software are boring and household budget software are useless.
  • "Pas de titre" (29th November 1985): the week before, Hebdogiciel described the different ways programmers could protect their software. To show that software publishers don't take intellectual property seriously enough, they went to the INPI (the French equivalent of IPO and USPTO) with a small list of French games, noticed that 11 of these titles were not registered, bought the names, asked their lawyer to send letters to these publishers and checked their reactions!
  • "Amstrad : des mickeys !" (10th January 1986): after one year of harmonious relationship, Hebdogiciel brings out the big guns against Amstrad. The reason: a massive shortage of 3' floppy disks in Europe, despite Alan Sugar's confidence and promises, and a dramatic underestimation of the demand for CPC computers that led Amstrad to be unable to deliver in time the CPC the retailers had ordered for the holiday season. Hebdogiciel nicknames Amstrad "mickeys" ("dummy" in French slang) and portrays Alan Sugar with all the attributes of Walt Disney's mouse (yes, the big ears and everything).
  • "Amstrad se paye Sinclair !" (11th April 1986): this article about the buyout of Sinclair by Amstrad is illustrated by a Maëster's cartoon showing a fat Alan Sugar with a tee-shirt "pork Amstrad" about to hit "Lord Sinclair" with a £5.000.000 bludgeon. Amstrad sued Hebdogiciel for public insult - and lost.
  • "Exclusif : un nouvel Amstrad 512 Ko !" (6th June 1986): to take revenge on Amstrad's incapability to supply France with 3' floppy disks, Hebdogiciel decides to "piss them off" with a front article revealing the imminent release of a new CPC 5512 with 512 Ko of RAM, a 5'1/4 floppy drive, two MIDI ports, a RS 232 port, and a GEM interface (illustrated with a CPC with a fake drive)! The footnote admitting it's a joke is lost somewhere at the page 23, in the middle of the comics reviews, because of a so-called "layout error"! The announcement made its effect: Amstrad quickly issued a denial, got a right to reply (followed by Hebdogiciel's own reply), Alan Sugar described the CPC 5512 rumor as "rubbish" (in his own term) and Amstrad sued Hebdogiciel for libel, claiming that this article hurt their sales of CPC 6128 - and lost.
  • "Amstrad : Boum !" (12th September 1986): a report at the PCW Show, where Amstrad unveiled the PC 1512 - more powerful and much cheaper than IBM PCs. The article is almost as enthusiastic as for the CPC. "Since his machine is awesome, we take one [Mickey's] ear away from Alan. We leave the other one because he's still as disagreeable as ever."

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Some of their most famous headlines

titre I Fought the Law

After its first media stunts, Hebdogiciel grew up quickly to 24, and later 32 pages, with the addition of several columns during the first half of 1985: TV programs, music, comics and movie reviews, and a comic strip, each week by a different artist, usually someone from the Fluide Glacial connection (Edika, Coucho, Hugot, Charlie Schlingo, Frank Margerin, Jean Solé, Dupuy & Berbérian, Jean-Christophe Menu...). However, Hebdogiciel still remained a programming newspaper, with 14 pages of listings each week, and a whole page of training to assembly language. One of their uncommon features was the "deulignes" ("twoliners"): the readers had to write the best software they could with only two lines of BASIC (max. 255 characters each). Some results were interesting, impressing or just plain stupid. The column "bidouille grenouille" didn't just contain some walkthroughs and pokes to get infinite lives, it also contained pokes to remove copy protections, because Hebdogiciel considered the users had the right to make a personal spare copy in case they would spill some coffee on their floppy disk - that's why they called it the "anti-coffee copy"! Of course, it didn't improve their image in the industry, on the contrary, but they couldn't care less.

As I wrote earlier, Hebdogiciel was sick of the excessive price of software and wanted to moralize the greedy wholesalers. In March 1986, they founded the Hebdogiciel club: for 150 francs a year, you earned a membership card and the right to order software at an even lower price than their usual mail order service - between 15% and 40% cheaper than in French shops like Micromania. The two first readers who ordered his card in Paris and province won 20 games each, and the card #7336 was proudly offered to Jack Tramiel after one of his press conferences! The success was tremendous - 3800 subscriptions in 5 days - and so was the backlash! The French software publishers felt their software were sold off. After some negociations, only ERE Informatique, Loriciels and Micro Application still refused to ship software, so Hebdogiciel sued them for "refusal to sell". The distributors were outraged; one of them (Innelec) sent letters to all major British publishers and wholesalers to warn them that Hebdogiciel was a magazine of pirates and that shipping them software hurt the industry, and they even tried to bribe the import manager of Hebdogiciel with a job! The British newspaper Computer Trade Weekly ran an article on this affair (21st April 1986), with Gérard Ceccaldi's claim that British software priced £10 was sold in France at about £16 to £20. I find this claim doubtful: I compared the prices of a few games for C64 and CPC in 1985 and 1986, and even considering the volatile exchange rate (£1 was worth 12 francs in mid-1985 and 10 francs in spring 1986), these games had almost the same price in the UK and in French shops like Micromania. Anyway, regarding the "refusal to sell" lawsuit, the court declared itself incompetent to give judgment, and several publishers stopped their shipment. Hebdogiciel had to send back half of the checks sent by the readers because they didn't have the ordered software in stock.

This humiliation was a blow to morale, and more bad news were around the corner. In October 1986, the team launched Amstradebdo, a spin-off magazine for Amstrad CPC with a tone completely opposite to Hebdogiciel, deliberately imitating the positive, over-enthusiastic writing of other game magazines. Amstrad initiated a third lawsuit for the use of their trademark in the name "Amstradebdo", but they had forgotten to register the name "Amstrad" for a magazine, so they lost once again. However, Hebdogiciel lost one lawsuit filed by Kléber Paulmier, the boss of Commodore France, after they had revealed he suffered from gangrene at one of his feet (!), but the sentence was light - losing the right to reprint the issue in hand. Hebdogiciel was also facing financial difficulties: the editorial staff now included 40 collaborators to write the columns, manage the club and contribute to Amstradebdo and Marcel (their second satirical spin-off magazine after L'Intox), but, after a peak of 80000 readers, the sales stagnated around 35000 readers. Sick and tired of working overtime for three long years, the directing heads of Hebdogiciel decided to call it quits before it was too late. Only two weeks after the club reached its 10.000th member (who won 100 games, a printer and joystick for CPC for this achievement), the last issue of the year 1986 showed a cemetery on the front page and a few innuendos about death, to subtly suggest that the end was near. And finally, the first issue of 1987 did not contain any warning that it was also the last. Hebdogiciel made itself hara-kiri in secret. Game over. Kaput.

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Hebdogiciel pulls the plug

titre Punk's Not Dead

The abrupt end of Hebdogiciel left thousands of readers in dismay, but it was obvious it couldn't have lasted much longer, for several reasons, financial or not. First, Hebdogiciel was a programming newspaper, a typical feature of the 8-bit computers. With the rise of 16-bit computers, their graphic interface and the lack of built-in programming language, Hebdogiciel had no future as it was - in the last issues, there were only 11 pages of programming out of 32, and the listings were split up into several issues to hide their decreasing number. Second, the falling number of formats. Hebdogiciel was born in a very fragmented market; they gathered the owners of many types of computers and were often the primary source of information for exotic machines like FX-702P or Canon X-07. In late 1986, however, the Amstrad CPC had crushed all its competitors, the owners of marginal computers mothballed their machines and stopped buying Hebdogiciel. The decrease of subjects to cover on a weekly basis was another reason to fold.

Despite its short lifespan, the legacy of Hebdogiciel is huge. On the programming level, it helped thousand of people learn programming, spend hours typing these long listings (and check each line if an error occurred !), or make their own games to submit them to publishing. Louis-Marie Rocques, Roland Morla, Fabrice Decroix, Eric Zmiro, Mathieu Marciacq, Christophe Le Bouil, Nicolas Gohin and Stéphane Baudet had at least one of their listings published in their pages before they started their computer game career. Hebdogiciel also had an important influence on the French gaming press, to the point that it became pretty hard to find a relatively serious gaming magazine (out of Tilt, of course). Many of them tried to imitate its tone, with far less swearing thankfully, but nowhere as bold - these ones relied heavily on game companies' advertisements, and it often showed. The most obvious example was Joystick Hebdo, a weekly game magazine whose team included Carali's son, Olivier Ka. When it became the monthly magazine Joystick in 1990, they hired Michel Desangles and Cyrille Baron, formerly from Hebdogiciel, and the news pages retrieved a bit of the same tone. Same thing for Amstrad Cent pour Cent, a CPC magazine that included pages about music, movies and comics. There were more embarrassing cases like Micro News, who hired Carali for its illustrations and had a taste for lousy humor, with a whole lot of sexist comments, or Amiga Concept, an immature and amateur publication. The most faithful to the independent spirit of Hebdogiciel is Le Virus Informatique, a hacking magazine.

Lots of old-school gamers and programmers still talk of Hebdogiciel, its tone and irreverence (along with the "it was better before" and "politically incorrect" bullshit) with starry eyes. I won't - and not just because I started to be involved in computer games a few years after this magazine disappeared. While their disrespect for manufacturers and publishers was sometimes delightful, and some of their headlines were legendary, they were often the precursors of angry immature YouTubers who spend more time yelling and swearing at the camera than talking about the game itself: sure, it's funny, but it's hardly constructive and not worth more than 5 minutes of attention. Their abuse of expletive and silly digressions made their texts tiresome to read, their game reviews were often abysmal, uninspired and ill-informed (they sometimes mixed publishers and distributors and never credited developers). Michel Desangles was proud of Hebdogiciel to have no contact with companies to preserve its independence; the price to pay was a short-sighted, consumer-oriented view. Hebdogiciel was stuck in an ambiguous situation where they claimed their amateur, hobbyist vision of computer science, while the programming done in this slovenly way gave the shitty, unfinished British and French games they complained about each week. The industry couldn't progress without being more professional, and Hebdogiciel didn't help it. There was a niche for a great satirical magazine in the computing and video game field; Hebdogiciel filled it because no one else did, but it was more Viz than Mad Magazine or the Canard Enchaîné. Anyway, it's still an interesting testimony of a bygone decade, and a pretty big piece of the "French are weird" file.

If you want more info, all issues of Hebdogiciel are available on (of course) Abandonware Magazines. Interviews of former Hebdogiciel employees were published in Tilt HS 59 (transcription) and Le Virus Informatique 2 (transcription). There was also a nostalgic article in Amiga Dream 6 (April 1994). And if you want to try one of their listings, good news: the website Hebdogiciel - le site has all of them typed, archived and downloadable to use in emulators, with screenshots and info!
Les commentaires

Pseudo
le 20/02/2020 14:48
Super article ! Bravo !
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