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Friday, December 15, 2006

Did Your Gordon Freeman Just Get Snowed Out?

Talk about proof of the fallibility of Steam. Remember, this means even if you were trying to play offline ... a storm somewhere else in the world is keeping you from your game.

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Virtual Gaming Tabletop Photoset

This is pretty awesome, a photoset of constructing a custom computerized tabletop for gaming. Basically a Dell monitor with a nice case that you can place figures on - this is definately the gem of someone's game night.

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DVD Watch: District B13

I'm kinda on break from gaming for a while. I've got either tendonitis or carpal in one wrist (I can't get doctors to agree and from what I can tell - it doesn't really matter). It normally isn't much of a bother because I've gotten so used to occasionally worrying about it and keeping it from getting really aggravated. So instead of playing through more Justice League Heroes last night, we popped in District B13.

It's hard not write a phrase like "a triumph of style over substance" when it comes to a film like B13. The characters are two dimensional stock archetypes that in this day and age could probably be written with a decent shell script and some XML. The plot is only slightly varied from virtually every "boy finds shiny thing, boy loses shiny thing, boy beats up lots and lots of people to get shiny thing back" kung fu film ever seen. There's some social commentary which barely rises past a muttering.

Who cares? LIke most kung fu films, you're really there to see the action. Most of the action in B13 is parkour or free running based. As I mentioned with my review of Casino Royale, parkour is essentially a 2.0 version of a car chase scene. It's more vibrant, more personal, more frenetic and a lot of fun to watch. Martial arts also play a big role, especially with Damien's scenes. The lack of computer graphics and wirework is almost oddly refreshing. Like watching an old trick being done for the first time all over again. There's a few sequences which will make you wince as you wonder how they didn't break someone in the process.

It's quick and fairly shallow. The Girl called it "a great short film that somehow ran long". Like most movies of this caliber, you wish, if anything, there was more action scenes and even less talking. Someone needs to be bold enough to make a ninety minute feature film without a line of dialogue.

So I'd recommend B13 as a reference movie if nothing else. This is an evolutionary bridge from the Jackie Chan movies of old to the action movies of the future - and if anything it's great to see it done in a pure form. After all, one of the main characters is played by David Belle who founded parkour. So B13 is to free running scenes as Bullitt was to car chases.

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Nintendo's Numerous Headaches

Despite being in an enviable position sales wise, Nintendo just recalled 200,000 chargers [NewLaunches] and a worldwide offer for replacement of all Wii straps [Engadget]. This is, of course, in addition to the existing patent lawsuit over the Wii controller.

Seperately, these don't seem terrible. I'm assuming the Wii straps are cheap - so it's hard to tell just how costly that kind of recall will turn out for Nintendo. The chargers probably cost more - but it's the kind of recall any responsible company should be prepared to handle. And I think I speak for lots of people when I say I hope the patent lawsuit gets dropped like a bad prom date. Still, together this feels like a dark cloud over the company. This is not a good time to have any consumer confidence dropping because a parent heard the Wii's straps could snap and break a window. Parents hate broken windows.

Tack on Curmudgeon's look at how much batteries will cost you playing the Wii and Greg's note that Zelda chews them faster than ever and it seems a little shine gets removed from the console. I'm assuming that playing in a battery free mode isn't an option for the Wii. Batteries were personally my biggest complaint with my first GBA - it seemed like I was constantly putting batteries into the thing.

Still, it's hard to see all these little issues mounting much of a slowdown to Nintendo's breakneck sales. If anything - it's worthy to note for what will hopefully come down the pipe in reaction to these problems. Namely a better strapped and rechargeable Wii remote (and new remotes may already be better strapped). In some ways - the Wii's controller is the console. It's the selling point. So Nintendo will do what Nintendo often does best and release a 2.0 version which makes you wonder why you bought the first one so darn early.

It's something that Microsoft and Sony could learn from. I still think the 360 is terribly designed since reports of it being noisy, hot and blinking red still aren't terribly uncommon. Even Sony haters seem hard to disagree with the notion that the PlayStation 3 is at least engineered properly for the living room. Where's a second revision 360 which might take advantage of redesign concepts and new manufacturing to be smaller and cooler? Likewise, where's our PSP 2? UMD is failing as a movie format and it's inefficient as a game format. As a company, Sony needs to prove it can focus on games first and stop trying to burden their hardware with media options consumers haven't even asked to have.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

NPD Corrected Console Figures

We also have the corrected life-to-date install bases for the U.S. The PS2 through November was at 35.8 million users. Very close behind is the GBA with 34.3 million. In the more modern battle of the portables, the DS stands at 7.6 million versus the PSP's 5.7 million. The Xbox 360 has sold 3.4 million units in the U.S., and the newly launched Wii and PS3 come in at 476K and 197K, respectively. Along with the Wii console, 270K Wii remotes and 153K nunchuks were also sold.

Interestingly, from a next-gen DVD standpoint the Xbox 360 HD DVD peripheral sold 42K units. So technically, within the gaming universe the PS3/Blu-ray install base is nearly five times greater.
-- GameDaily BIZ: Revised: Game Industry Up 16% through November

Once again - these numbers don't spell great things for the Xbox 360. The PSP, which plenty of gamers like to pronounce dead on online forums, has nearly twice the install base with less than a year's headstart. Plus, the HD DVD peripheral is clearly selling terribly. It's much lower cost and higher availability should have made it a contender against the PlayStation 3 launch for consumers looking for an inexpensive high def player. Obviously, not many were.

How much that will actually impact the format war as yet to be seen. HD-DVD still has cheaper players then Blu-Ray once you've discounted the PlayStation 3 as a factor. Until Sony can resolve its manufacturing and supply problems - it's not really a force in either the media or gaming markets.

And remember - these numbers are stateside. The DS easily has an equal amount installed outside the US.

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Your Future MMO Interface

"How World Of Warcraft will be played in 2030." Via Mordant bastards' photostream via Shutar's blog via Pyxelated from Deviantart.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Sony Confesses To "Being Too Clever"

No seriously. Too clever. That's how they put it. Sure, I think they meant it in a slightly self-deprecating way ... but nothing could be deprecating enough here. I mean - the site was clearly done by either Sony or an idiot since it was mostly written in bad IM chatterspeak like "u kno - dis is kool lol".

Or perhaps the correct answer is "both". I mean, more than insidious, the whole thing was just dumb. Clearly the byproduct of too many people in a room reading about "social online networking" and "search enhancement optimization" without having a real clue.

Sony has some moments of advertising genius ... but apparently is simply not comparing notes with the PlayStation departments. Sad - and bad timing since they don't have enough product clout right now to subside it. They really need good PR and tech these days.

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Donnie Darko MMO

No, I don't have a link to a press release to a Donnie Darko MMO. Largely because one doesn't exist. But someone googled their way to Cathode yesterday using "donnie darko mmo" as a search term.

So I just must ask ... how would that work exactly? For the unfamiliar, Donnie Darko is a cult film about a high school kid who narrowly avoids death to ultimately learn from a six foot tall bunny that the world is about to end. It's creepy, cerebral and completely awesome. It's my favorite Apokalyptica movie to date.

But how could someone make an MMO out of that?

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TV Watch: I Am House's Legal Problems

Since House seems to be about the only show on television airing new episodes - it seems worth to make note of it. Sadly, I'm still widly conflicted about this season. I can't find the arching premise - that a detective has taken his vendetta so far as to ruin the lives of several doctors and bring down a head of oncology's practice- all that plausible. Trigger's evidence and methods has been nothing but questionable from the outset. Cuddy and Wilson have been acting a little bit like beheaded chickens about the whole ordeal and accepting a quack detective's medical analysis of House over their own knowledge from the last season.

In the real world, an affair like this would be strung out off the stage of action and over the course of years involving several rings of lawyers. Naturally that doesn't make for good television. And that's what is so annoying - this slipshod version of a premise does make for good television. Trigger's interrogation of the characters have brought out some choice moments. Wilson has more depth and nuance to him now that he's actually stood up and betrayed House. Even Cameron has a chance to come back out of her shell and bit a more than oogly caretaker girl.

Plus - any show willing to portray its main character as a strung out obnoxious drug addict next to a pool of his own vomit deserves a few plusses in its column. So many shows revere their protaganist so much that danger only seems to skirt around them. Even Lost suffers from this - the occasional character will get tortured for a while and then snap out of it the following week. The producers will sacrifice a character or so a season - but the cast feels just the same size as when the show started. It's not like we expect House to get offed or even sent to prison ... but you never know just what kind of beating he might endure from week to week.

So I'm keen to the implausibility of this season ... but as long as it continues to provide fodder for good drama I'll let it slide.

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I Know Ronin

When I was in high school, I took a class on Oriental history at the local community college. This was largely because the public high school system was so shoddy at teaching history that I wanted to learn something more fundamental than "World War II was a lot like World War I" (actual quote by my advance placement history teacher).

One day in class we were discussing the age of the samurai and how their traditions evolved over time. The teacher mentioned the word ronin and asked if anyone knew what that meant. I raised my hand and said it was a masterless samurai. He seemed surprised and asked how I knew that.

I told him I read a lot. I didn't tell him I read it while researching a Dungeons & Dragons campaign and the information actually came from a book published by TSR.

I was reminded of this anecdote when I read the Guardian's post on how kids are losing their vocabulary and the inclination in culture to blame those introspective, anti-social geeks. Even though most people I know who are heavily into geek culture are pretty voracious readers.

What about the noveau geek? The Nintendo kids of the world. Let's pretend that some kids are turning mostly to interactive content on their televisions. Just how does the usual video game compare to reading? Forget the "Everything Bad" train of thought - we're not talking cognitive processes here ... just straight up vocabulary.

I must say, I can't think of many great examples here. Maybe it's a lack of morning coffee - but games like Dynasty Warriors, Shadow of the Colossus and Katamari Damarcy don't exactly use a lot of five dollar words in their dialogue. It's not, of course, that I think video games need to take up a child's lack of education as a cause. Shadow of the Colossus is better without loads of dialogue.

Still, how is it that pen and paper gaming was so much better for my vocabulary?

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Dragon Quest DS

The Dragon Quest series of games has a decent-sized following in the US, but in Japan it's pretty much the gold standard of gaming. This is the series people wait in line for; the sort of thing that causes productivity to lapse and riots in the streets. Okay, probably not riots, but the popularity of the series in Japan is hard to imagine. It's like Halo, Lord of the Rings, and Madden all rolled into one. To sell the maximum amount of units, the series always goes to the system with the largest user base, and of course that's been the PS2 for a very long time.

That just changed.
-- Dragon Quest IX is heading to ... the DS? WHOA [Ars Technica]

This is widely reported to be a slap in the face to Sony for whatever reason. I'm not sure about that - I don't think this is being done because Sony's not the favorite son of the blogosphere right now ... I think it's because the saturation rate of the PlayStation 3 is well behind the curve of the Nintendo DS.

So it's not so much, I think, an opinion on Sony as a company but rather the fascinating realization by a major software developer than for the near future the next PlayStation 2 is not the PlayStation 3. Nor is it the Wii. And it is definately not the 360. It's the DS. It's got a massive audience, the hardware has proven potential, and it's not expensive to produce a product. Plus the sales figures indicates that the market will continue to grow for at least the short term - and with Nintendo's track record probably well beyond.

I do hope we see more of this motion towards the DS, however. I personally like the Wii because it's something of a "this" generation console. It's for those people who haven't dove into HDTV's and media computers. The DS, however, fits that bill even more so ... and I've been wanting decent coop RPG goodness for the DS ... so color me pleased as punch here. I've been missing my DS a little as of late and this is precisely the kind of thing to make me forget Starfox happened along my way.

I doubt this will remain exclusive, though. The question is - who will get this kind of developer support after the Wii and PS3 have ramped up production?

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Fallout MMO In The Pipeline?

This Prospectus proposes sale of Interplay Entertainment Corp common stock which will be admitted to trade on one of the Euronext exchanges. Proceeds will be used for the production of a Massively Multiplayer On Line Game based on Interplay's Intellectual Property: Fallout (the "Fallout MMOG")

The Fallout MMOG will be developed in the highly recognized Fallout post Nuclear Apocalyptic world giving consumers an ongoing virtual experience of today's life as if the cold war, which lasted for the best part of the second half of last century, had led to a nuclear disaster

The budget for the Fallout MMOG totals $75,000,000 and will be funded by Interplay, its development and distribution partners.
-- Fallout MMORPG in the Works? [Inside Mac Games]

Those juicy tidbits are withn an SEC report which, oddly, makes for some interesting reading. I wouldn't go getting too excited here - this is what one might refer to as a "pre pre-production" phase. We have more details about the Firefly MMO deal right now ... and we don't have any details about the Firefly MMO right now.

Still, one can dream. Fallout screams for an MMO - although I don't know about how it much sense it makes to have an overcrowded wasteland. Actually, I'd think the Guild Wars formula would make the most sense here. You could have towns and hatches for gathering areas and mission based instance zones. It would make it easier to keep some of the feel from the original game while building on the MMO model.

Ah, dare to dream. Dare to dream.

Update: Don't hold your breath. I mean literally, apparently the launch is stated here to be around 2010 and you can't hold your breath that long. Plus by then, World of Warcraft will have consumed all other franchises in the Great MMO War of 2008.

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Apokalyptica Mod For Doom: The Board Game

It looks like my contribution to this year's Apokalyptica will be to try ang work out a "mod" for Doom: The Board Game. Doom TBG was featured heavily in last year's celebration ... in fact it turned into a nearly two day operation.

That was part of the problem. It was fun but grueling. It's hard to convince people to camp out at your place for a game they haven't played. Now - you don't have to play the game this way. For one thing, it was our first time so we spent a good deal of time reading rules and setting up and then we kinda kept playing to get the hang of rules as we went on.

What I'd like to do is find a way to streamline the game down a little. Make it easier to have a pick-up game rather than plan out a whole war campaign. It's not that I don't love my RPG roots - it's just that I don't have time to plan out new scenarios for a game that's hard to plan time around.

The basic rules (many details to be flushed out):

- The game will take place in rounds. The game will be over when either a set number of rounds has been played or a set time limit hit. Winner will be the player with the most points.

- Marines each get one skill cards. Cards may be traded. To draw new cards, all Marines must agree to discard their cards.

- Rounds begin with a construction phase. Players take turns adding sections. Once the sections are in, they can add obstacles, and then equipment. (restrictions/rules on this are a big TBD - perhaps predefined equipment sets)

- Marines and Invaders follow Evil Dead rules. Marines can select an unbreakable shotgun or chainsaw at the beginning of the game. Invader does not have to spend points to bring zombies into the game. Marines Killed by zombies will be Zombie Marines - zombie monsters but armed with a shotgun.

- Weapons follow "loaded" rule and come with an ammo token.

- Rounds will continue until either a) the Marines find a keycard and escape, b) the Invader manges to kill each Marine three times or c) or predefined time limit is hit. (optional objectives might be entertaining - like "save the scientist").

- In between rounds, Players can spend points to buy new armor, cards, health, ammo and weapons (similar to campaign rules). The Invader can spend points at any time to bring in new monsters. Equipment can also be traded at this time. Cards cannot be traded anymore.


- Score balancing. Invader might have to start with a "pool". Likewise, Marines may need better starting supplies.
- Optional goals. Like having Marines "save" scientists by spending a health pack.

Update: Google keeps hitting this page. A rough draft now exists.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Would A Wiki Help Effective Game Design?

"We discussed the fact that most of the failures in the online space have failed for reasons that were all well-known 10 years ago," says Mike Steele, vp at Calabasas, Ca.-based Emergent Game Technologies which makes tools for game design. "You can read all the game postmortems and see that the developers all repeated the mistakes others made simply because they weren't aware of them and what the solutions are."

Steele's work group decided that there was a need to build a body of knowledge to contain game design best practices.

"We're talking about information on everything from cryptology to real-time photorealistic rendering to artificial intelligence to databases -- all the big, hard problems addressed in one small space."

The solution is expected to be a "wiki," a Web site that allows developers to add their best practices and then make them available to all other developers. "This became a Project Horseshoe action item," says Steele, "and, in fact, the wiki is scheduled to be posted very shortly -- perhaps as early as January 1." The Web address will be announced on the "Project Horseshoe" Web site.
-- What's Stopping Effective Game Design?

I love wikis (even those that spurn holiday cheer) ... I just started one to help write the new hyperfiction I'm working on. We've tossed the idea around work sometimes, but it always devolves into a kind of issue management rather than articles on concepts or ideas.

So yeah, I'd think a universal game dev wiki would be interesting. Chaotic, I'm sure, but that's part of what makes wikis great.

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Mile Zero On Apokalyptica

Thomas weighs in with some suggestions for Apokalyptica. Inconvenient Truth is a great suggestion (and on my wishlist for this season) that nicely gives something on the other end from the usual latex monster mash that I think about.

Still, a screenplay with the four horsemen? Sweet.

A nod to Corvus for contemplating making Apokalyptica a Round Table - though I think he's wise in not mixing religion and game theory too much. I like how people can put their own slant on it though. Whether it's coop zombie killing (hat tip to Brin) or mixing music and anime - I'm clearly going to have to update the description from "marathon sessions" to "personal expression".

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TV Watch: Smallville

Keeping with the DC comics vein - WTF was up with last week's Smallville? The show is generally my pulp fiction for television. It's not terribly smart or complicated - but it is usually somewhat fun. And while often formulaic - it at least manages to be competent.

Last week, though, featured more writing mistakes than should be allowed on television. Martha was so out of character she was almost unrecognizable. It's bad enough that the show can't seem to decide whether it's OK for her and Lionel Luthor to be involved or not ... but when she goes from being a bleeding heart do-gooder to a by-the-rules conservative willing to ship a homeless boy back to the law ... you just have to shake your head. The Kents have been circumventing the law so much since the show began it's practically a family holiday. So when Martha reverses course just to setup some conflict in the plot - it feels haphazard and messy.

Not quite as haphazard and messy as the rest of plot, mind you. The story slips the transmission a couple of times. You can hear grinding gears particularly when Clark pulls out info from nowhere - sparking a completely illogical pit stop with the obvious reason of setting up the final "fight". The fight, between Clark and Farmer Moleman, lasts about ten seconds ... and then Farmer Moleman falls mysteriously into a coma for now good reason other than it's a simple way to stop having to write any dialogue for him.

The Girl and I caught an old Superman serial last week. The old black and white ones where Superman's powers are generally depicted with animation. Sadly even the ridiculous plot there - where Lex Luthor is using TV vans to crack safe combinations - is a hundred times better than what we got last week.

From the previews, it looks like we'll be treated soon to a Smallville version of Justice League. The show has done an interesting job of rehashing other heroes into the Smallville motif - from Flash The Boy Thief to Aquaman Surfer Dude. Hopefully this will be an uptick for the show, because a downtick will be getting it removed from the recording schedule.

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Gameplay: Justice League Heroes

Justice League Heroes occupied much of our Sunday. We can't play Marvel: Ultimate Alliance unless our third shows up in that weird kind of coop gamers guilt that would come with having to explain why you are suddenly fighting Galactus instead of say, underwater mermen. We had actually gotten so into the Marvel game that I was a little suspicious about jumping into a DC counterpart.

Since Justice League Heroes is from Snowblind, it feels more like Baldur's Gate or the Champions of Norrath series. In fact, it feels quite like those games - it just looks about ten times better. I thought Norrath pushed the limits of the PS2's ability to display a Diablo style game - but both Justice League just blows it away. It's not apparent at first - but the better textures and more complex lighting (especially the shadows) really gives the environments a sense of realism and depth. I can only hope another Norrath game is in the PS2's future with this engine in tow.

Back to the game - it plays very solid. While it lacks some of the complexities of melee and combos that are becoming the staple of Raven's Marvel games, it features a more streamlined and straightforward approach to characters. The design for the superpower quite brilliantly captures each hero without having to make it seem like you need to wade through several levels or experiment deeply with each one. Justice League also abandons equipment almost completely for "boosts" which can be added to existing powers to upgrade them. You also pickup Justice League Shields which can be spent on alternate costumes and new heroes. Both boosts and shields are shared - freeing up players from having to waste time accusing each other of stealing.

Another interesting bit about the design is that you aren't allowed to pick a hero and stick with them. Missions have specific heroes to play - often ones appropriate like having Wonder Woman and Superman flying out in space - and some allow you to divide up League members to specific tasks. This is an odd twist on the role-playing angle of the genre, because "you" are not "Green Lantern" exclusively. However, it works quite well. The Girl commented that it was nice to be able to try out each of the heroes instead of just blindly selecting one. Also, this frees up the developers to allow for level designs which are specific to heroes - so the game feels a little less like a series of passages leading to a boss fight. Well, a little less...

Having now played each of the core heroes - I'd say character balance is actually pretty good. I've read a few reviews which lay out one hero as more or less useless whereas the other is a powerhouse. I'd say that's probably an aspect of trying to finish the game quickly and not spending enough time boosting powers that are generally used. As I mentioned before, it's easier to get the hang of the powers and easier to boost - and once you have each character has strengths which can be applied to the serious science of fighting evil.

At the same time, though, Marvel feels like a deeper experience with more things to unlock ... but more importantly it has four player coop. Justice League Heroes only has two. It's not the worse thing in the world - I'd say 90% of my coop on the PS2 is only with one other person. And I imagine there's a laundry list of subtle positives with the limitation - like screen rates and interface options. Still, when one does get the chance for three or four player coop - you realize it's generally worth it.

For fans of the Diablo clone genre - Justice League Heroes would be hard to pass up. For DC fans - I'd say there's little reason for hesitation. Yeah, it's kinda silly to see Superman get punched out. There's a bit of dialogue where Martian Manhunter explains that "these robots are strong enough to hurt even you, Superman," which is almost worth a chuckle. Especially since he's in the same mission as Batman - so if they can hurt old Clark ... you know Bats would be crushed to dust.

Still, the The Superman Paradox - how do you make compelling gameplay with an invulnerable hero - isn't exactly something this game was designed to defeat. The voice acting is fairly average - you will get annoyed by Supe's "Super!" exclamation eventually ... but you probably won't tire of Batman's gravelly sarcasm.

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Fake Grass Roots Isn't Viral Marketing

Gamers across Web 2.0 are shaking angry fists at the latest alleged viral marketing campaign orchestrated by Sony. Piggybacking the YouTube bonanza, the company has hired "consumer activation" firm Zipatoni to create a false video-and-blogging approach to generate interest in their flagging PlayStation Portable handheld machine. The video/blog/ads featured people portending to be authentic PSP fans creating messages of love/want for the console, but were quickly uncovered by's dedicated base as superficial facades shielding mouthpieces for the corporation.

In the past, Sony's award-winning PlayStation brand ads were celebrated for their creativity and innovation. Their recent campaigns, including an ill-advised series of graffiti art, suggests that they are having difficulty getting a handle on the bottom-up, community driven opportunities made possible with social software.
-- New Sony viral marketing ploy angers consumers

Here's a friendly tip to wannabee ilovebee's: don't be a paid schill. Schills are those people con men pay to hang out in the audience so that someone can agree with their con. There are few things more annoying to net savvy crowds than learning that someone is really just a walking advertisement. I'm not saying that every viral ad needs a "Paid For By The Advancement Of PlayStation 3 Sales", I'm saying if you're going to represent things which actually aren't what they seem ... it's better that it be a sentient AI trapped on someone's website rather than someone paid to act like they know what a PSP looks like.

By comparison Three Speech is just ... straight up grass roots. Yeah, it's basically just a corporate paid fanboy site ... but at least you know that's what it is.

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Patrick's Apokalyptica: Evangelion/Manson Mashup

Brilliant Apokalyptica celebration over at King Lud:

I watched The End of Evangelion to a soundtrack of Marilyn Manson's Mechanical Animals. It synched up nicely, but only because I put it on a x2 fast-foward and cut out four songs on the album: Dissaciative, I Want To Disappear, New Model No. 15 and User Friendly. I also started the first song right at the title, skipping the live action part at the beginning.
-- The End of Mechanical Animals

He breaks down the song by scene as well. I know Brin was going for a Dead Rising event. Zombies are so wonderfully apokalyptica. I was watching this week's Battlestar Galactica and noted that it's truly apokalyptica - whereas my even more favorite show Firefly just doesn't have that fragile sense of doom (except, of course, for the most shiny episode Out of Gas).

Lost Room starts tonight on the SciFi channel - will definately have to give that a watch as well.

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