Karim Miteff, and his producing partner James Bethea are on the verge of revolutionizing the game show — again. Let me explain by describing a program that appeared on your Nickelodeon Cable Channel line-up in the 1990’s.
In Nickelodeon Arcade, two teams went head-to-head on a range of gaming consoles for the right to go INSIDE a video game and compete for a grand prize. I’m talking about you, yourself – ducking fireballs, grabbing for coins, jumping over other hazards… Premiering January 3, 1992, Nickelodeon Arcade showcased one of the earliest mainstream implementations of virtual reality, and in this way and many others, the hit show was ahead of its time.
The upfront rounds preceding the VR segment presented a character named “Mikey” on a colorful themed gameboard (a haunted neighborhood or sunken ship, for instance) divided into directional squares. When a team named a direction up, down, left or right, the game board would scroll as Mikey traveled to the appropriate next square, and an activity would be revealed for the next challenge — play a video game, solve an audio-visual puzzle, etc. To keep up with the live-to-tape demands of recording as many as five episodes per day, Miteff and Bethea created a non-linear system designating a personal computer to operate Mikey’s board and syncing it with a laser disc containing the content needed in the production control room.
“Nickelodeon Arcade was the first show entirely conceived, created and produced from Nickelodeon Studios Florida and was covered extensively by the local and national press,” Co-Creator Miteff proudly exclaimed. “It was definitely a “top secret” project during its 12 month development cycle.”
Three pilots and a total of 84 episodes over two seasons were shot at Nickelodeon Studios in Orlando, Florida. The production was a showcase for the fledgling, but remarkably well equipped studio to strut its technical chops and literally stretched its capabilities to the limit. The facility sported two voluminous 16,000 square foot sound stages with a computerized De Sisti self-climbing hoist lighting system and Sony pedestal-based studio cameras, with Nickelodeon Arcade occupying one entire sound stage during its production run (the blue screen sets were to full scale and massive. No wonder all the kids were huffing and puffing on their way out of the “Video Zone” where the VR segments took place).
Among other things, the control rooms were equipped with Grass Valley 300 and 200 switchers, Chyron CG and live audio mixing consoles (The show’s production prep had reached a sort of infamous milestone when the last input on the Grass Valley 300 switcher was connected, reportedly leading to a round of applause from the studios’ engineering staff).
The engineering core was fully routable, with equipment including seven D2 tape machines for primary record and playback, two Ultimatte 6 units for chromakey work, Abekas A53 multi-channel DVE, Quantel Paintbox and Faroudja encoders. These were all standard definition NTSC compatible components, of course: HD transmission specifications in the U.S. was still years from being formally proposed, much less adopted, by the FCC). The studios were created to be the place “where Nick was made” and little expense was spared to give the facility everything it needed to handle a wide range productions, from frenetic live broadcasts to gut busting sitcoms.
Adding to the panoply of broadcast gear, the production team of Bethea/Miteff brought in an eclectic collection of Commodore Amiga computers, along with a brigade of third party hardware, innovative off the shelf and custom designed software for this now all but forgotten system. The Amiga’s unique integrated graphics architecture made the system compatible with NTSC and PAL video standards, allowing internal system timing, native video output and accompanying peripherals to be locked to house sync. In addition to the Amiga, the facility engineers had to deal with all sorts of consumer game systems, producing video signals well outside broadcast standards, making them nearly impossible to cleanly record, much less route through a switcher or DVE channel. Using the right combination of adapters and Tektronix frame synchronizers, the universe of 8 bit and 16 bit home video games came to the screen with surprisingly quality, a noteworthy feat unto itself.
Nickelodeon Arcade was given a mandate to adhere to norms and practices associated even today with game show production, with as little post time as possible (online time at the facility was expensive even as a charge back), thus its live to tape status. The computer systems that handled the games and interactive sets had to be as reliable as professional broadcast gear. This was well before wireless and even Ethernet-based systems were commonplace, making it necessary to build custom software interfaces for the Amiga to control systems via available RS-232, GPI and even MIDI protocols where possible. Multiple Amiga systems, some using 24 bit framebuffer cards and component RGB keyers unique to the system, handed their own multi-layer composites, sound and animation triggers and communicated with the broadcast equipment in perfect unison. This resulted in the show having an additional studio audience appeal factor: once shooting started, it often went from start to finish in real time. To help lessen the load on the truly beleaguered tape ops, a Pioneer VDR-1000 was added to the mix in the second season, completely replacing the need for tape-based video roll ins and being truly non-linear in nature. Life was good.
Nickelodeon Arcade premiered on the Weekends and quickly gained the highest ratings its time slot had ever seen. The show became a daily strip in Nickelodeon’s Prime Time block in 1993.
A triumph of engineering, production and creative will, Bethea/Miteff Productions and the staff at Nickelodeon Studios had achieved a historic accomplishment. And, as an official Universal Studios theme park tour attraction, they had to made it all look easy while literally thousands of guests passed through every day.
“My partner and I delivered on the promise of putting people inside of a video game in ‘Nickelodeon Arcade,’ which wonderfully matched the current games of the era,” stated Miteff. “It was great to have the cooperation and support of the Nickelodeon team to make our dream – which they shared and embraced – become a reality.”
“It’s a competition challenge show that uses video games, robotics, and virtual and augmented reality technology,” Miteff explains. The show will include popular video games and custom games using variations of current mobile and interactive technology and even feature “retro” games to offer unexpected challenges. As the show progresses from round to round, the contestants will also experience deeper levels of immersion.
Miteff continues, “Our new show would use virtual and augmented reality technology in a seamless fashion for entirely performance-oriented, live-to-air/record action, providing complete freedom of movement – far exceeding the standard we set long ago. Contestants in the virtual reality portion of the show will, among other things, be able to launch fireballs, project force fields and fire lasers at objects which everyone will be able to see, as well as their effects on the environment. These wall-to-wall sets can appear as any environment we choose and are designed to react and respond interactively using robotics and mechanical effects. Creatures and obstacles in these sets can be completely virtual, physical — even a combination of the two — delivering a visceral sense of the real and the fantastic at the same time. Our goal is to make ‘Enthlevel’ a spectacular form of entertainment and make it the first show to actually look like it was produced in the 21st Century.”
One of the most fantastic things about today’s technology that Miteff plans to take advantage of is building multiple features into the “Enthpower Suits” that contestants will wear. Nickelodeon Arcade players also had uniforms, but they were mostly for the cool look and some safety factors. However, the Enthpower Suits are designed to take the players directly into the challenges and beyond normal reality to a level not seen before.
Lightweight with great freedom of movement, the mesh-looking suits are studded with sensor nodes to provide real-time positional data of the user in 3D space – think of it as personal GPS – allowing the player to interact with virtual entities, intelligent props and other set pieces. In conjunction with the sensor nodes, the Force Feedback Bands around various bodily locations alert players to virtual impacts and damage from those impacts.
In addition to the sensors, a rearward “SensorPod” (like a beetle-shell backpack) carries secondary and redundant sensor systems, along with enhanced electronics for wireless devices and rechargeable power supplies so that the player can engage in extended activities. Because the packs are crucial to the playability of the game, they will be “damage resistant” and not be prone to “attacks.”
The virtual reality environment will also allow the use of physical portable weapons, artifacts and other interactive accessories. They will also trigger their own special effects. For example, the fusion gun will “fire” realistic plasma blasts, while a wand may “cast” virtual lightning bolts. The real beauty, though, will be in the helmet – equipped with a protective shield and a visor-based visual overlay system that will allow the players to see the virtual imagery, graphics, and gaming stats. The helmet also is furnished with an enhanced 3D audio system and a multi-channel voice/biometric communication system for use during game play.
According to Bethea and Miteff, technology alone will not win the day. As Bethea states, “Nickelodeon Arcade allowed us to develop, test and execute live, large scale virtual environments under broadcast conditions. We know what it takes to make these environments compelling to both participants and viewers alike. Our planned combination of gear and game environments are uniquely suited to the task. The experience we have gained was hard won and ends up adding to the formula that makes all this possible.”
“This time, our promise for ‘Enthlevel’ is to put people inside of a video game meeting today’s level of quality and expectations,” Miteff says. “Today’s games are rich 3D environments with stunning visuals and amazing effects. We plan to use an approach which will utilize many forms of existing technologies, from the well-known to the cutting edge, that will produce an incredible experience for the player and viewing audience alike – one we feel will far surpass the achievements and exhilaration of ‘Nickelodeon Arcade.’”
Fantastic advances in broadcast video production technology and video game technology will also make Enthlevel transformative in relation to its predecessor. The clarity of HD video and advances in computer technology provide extraordinary economies. The access to software tools and hardware that formed mega dollar 3D workstations, now are comfortably in the grasp of leading game developers and artists. Miteff and Bethea will tap these resources as they have in the past, getting the the look and feel of today’s video games, while keeping development and show costs reasonable.
The former host of “Nickelodeon Arcade,” Phil Moore, and its announcer, Andrea Lively, will be joining the “Enthlevel” team, as well. “This will not only add faces and voices familiar to fans of the earlier show,” Miteff adds, “but also their enthusiasm and unique knowledge of exactly what is involved in putting together this type of highly technical production.”
‘Entertainment Weekly’ is also on top of this game, and published an article detailing its mystique.
Miteff is hoping that a local audience will find this of interest since it will be a homegrown project and hits many high notes on topical subjects, including video games, virtual reality, 90s nostalgia and technology in general. It also promises to be an exciting and upbeat form of entertainment with something for just about everyone.”
There is a Kickstarter campaign started by Miteff’s company in order to develop and produce ‘Enthlevel.’ If the Kickstarter is successful, Miteff would continue development in Central Florida and would most likely produce the show there as well. “We want to see if we can develop the property independently, outside of major studio influence, to help streamline and accelerate the process,” Miteff offered. “Ultimately, the manner in which it is funded shouldn’t change the primary vision of the show, which is to celebrate and showcase video games, current interactive technology and push the envelope as far as possible to generate a wow factor.”