Bloodnet: A conversation with Laura Kampo and John Antinori
Laura Kampo and John Antinori were the game designers and writers for the classic computer game BloodNet, published by MicroProse in 1993. An adventure/RPG hybrid with a vampire cyberpunk setting and a blend of pre-rendered 3D and 2D pixel art styles, BloodNet is an unusual game mechanically, thematically and stylistically.
This conversation with Laura and John was conducted by Christian Schmidt on Friday, March 23rd 2018 via VoIP call. The recording was originally published as an audio podcast on patreon.com as bonus material for supporters of the podcast Stay Forever. Prior to the interview, Gunnar and Christian, the hosts of Stay Forever, had played through BloodNet over the course of two months and published weekly updates about their progress in the form of audio podcasts as part of their “Stay Forever Spielt” format. Stay Forever is Germany’s leading podcast on retro gaming, and one of Patreon’s top 40 podcasts worldwide.
The audio interview was cooperatively transcribed by five members of the Stay Forever community: Anym, Crylion, Jörg, meep & Niklas. A huge thank you to them for their fantastic, diligent work! The transcript was subsequently edited for clarity and better readability.
Please link to this page and mention Stay Forever when you quote.
If you’re interested in playing Bloodnet, you may find our collection of notes and data helpful (Excel file).
Stay Forever: Over the past weeks we’ve been playing BloodNet, which turned out to be a pretty unique and captivating experience, and we ran into a lot of questions about the game’s design. So we decided to invite two of the makers of BloodNet to talk about the game. Laura, John, I’m very happy to have you on the show!
John Antinori: Thank you, Christian! Likewise.
Laura Kampo: We’re pleased to be here.
Stay Forever: Can I ask you to briefly introduce yourselves? Who are you and what was your role on BloodNet?
Laura Kampo: My name is Laura Kampo. At the time when we were with MicroProse, John and I were game designers when the game was released in 1993.
John Antinori: I’m John Antinori, and I think Laura covered it. She and I were collaborators, we designed it and wrote it.
Stay Forever: BloodNet was not the first game that either of you worked on. How did you get started in the games industry and what did you do prior to BloodNet?
John Antinori: We were very young, so we didn’t do a lot before then. My best friend F. J. [Lennon], who is Laura’s husband, and his friend Mark [Seremet] started a computer games company while we were in college. We did a few other games like text adventures and I think one RPG prior to BloodNet, but we were just a bunch of twenty-somethings in Latrobe, Pennsylvania with a start-up computer game company. We would eventually go on to license some Marvel Comics games and do some bigger things, but for me at least, this was probably the third game I was involved in.
Laura Kampo: Same here. Before I was doing games, I was handling the PR for the company. Before that I was an advertising copywriter, because you have to understand, at the time, being a game designer was not a legitimate endeavor yet. You couldn’t study it in school, we were on the fringe of society, kind of. I don’t know about you, John, but I had to explain to my parents what I was doing for a living, right?
John Antinori: I’ve been doing that for quite a while, yes. *laughs*
Laura Kampo: Now you can major in it at Carnegie-Mellon!
John Antinori: Everything was R&D, even how we would do the packaging. What kind of box we would put it in and what our supply chain would be. It was a really fun early moment of the PC games business.
Stay Forever: That first games company which you mentioned, what was the name of that company?
John Antinori: Paragon Software.
Laura Kampo: That’s right. They did MegaTraveller.
John Antinori: Yes, MegaTraveller. Marvel Comics. Twilight’s Ransom.
Laura Kampo: I wrote the manual for that one.
Stay Forever: How did you get from Paragon to MicroProse?
Laura Kampo: They were originally our distributor. And then they acquired us. So we were a studio under MicroProse’s label.
John Antinori: And then they immediately went bankrupt and we ended up, within a year, taking back the assets and forming Take-Two, which still exists and publishes under the Rockstar label.
Laura Kampo: A lot of people don’t realize that Take-Two really started in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Their owner was in New York and it branched out from there, but they grabbed up our little studio and that was where Take-Two started.
Stay Forever: Wait a second, I need to roll back here quickly. You were bought by MircoProse and then you went bankrupt? MicroProse existed for quite a while, how does that fit together?
John Antinori: After they bought us, once we were on the inside, it was clear that their business wasn’t very healthy. They had tried to go into an arcade business and they essentially were going to lay us all off, so instead of doing that we just asked them to give us back control of our assets and F. J., Laura’s husband, and Mark Seremet, who was his partner, went looking for somebody else to invest in us. We ended up forming Take-Two from that.
Laura Kampo: Didn’t MicroProse get acquired by Spectrum Holobyte then?
Stay Forever: What was it like working at MicroProse at that time? So, for instance, how did the office look like and how did the teams work?
Laura Kampo: We were our own separate studio. A four-hour drive away, in Hunt Valley, Maryland was MicroProse. Their lab was working on Civilization at the time. We had a really nice relationship. They let us do our thing, pretty much. We didn’t realize how good we had it until we moved on to other things where people are in everything you do.
John Antinori: And they were in the same office park as the McCormick spices company.
Laura Kampo: I remember that!
John Antinori: So every time you pulled into the lot, it was fragrant with oregano.
Laura Kampo: Garlic!
John Antinori: Or garlic or whatever spice that would be.
Laura Kampo: Or cinnamon!
John Antinori: It was a good year working with them. We had a producer, Lawrence Schick, who actually came up with the idea of doing a cyberpunk vampire game. He was assigned to us by MicroProse as a producer and we were having lunch in the Olive Garden in Latrobe, and he said: „Do cyberpunk vampires!“ Cause back then, the Anne Rice novels were big. We thought that was a good idea and we ran with it.
Laura Kampo: It was also the time, in about ’92, that the Francis Ford Coppola Bram Stoker’s Dracula came out, remember?
John Antinori: Yeah!
Laura Kampo: Keanu Reeves and his excellent accent. And so the vampire thing was just starting and this whole cyberpunk thing was new. We had to define what it was, we had to explain things that are now commonplace, about decking your brain into the computer and all kinds of things, so we just melded two things that were, I would say, trendy.
Stay Forever: Lawrence Schick, who you mentioned, who is credited for the game as „Producer of Role-Playing games“…
Laura Kampo: That’s right!
Stay Forever: So, he was sitting in Maryland, in the head office.
John Antinori: Yes, the head office.
Stay Forever: And he suggested that to you as a follow-up to Challenge of the Five Realms, I guess, which was the first game that you worked on for MicroProse.
John Antinori: I don’t know if it was the first one, but it was certainly one of the first, yes. We weren’t part of MicroProse with Challenge, they were distributing for us. So if you look at the box, it says Microplay. That was their label.
Stay Forever: Ah, right, so that was still developed under Paragon.
Laura Kampo: Right.
Stay Forever: Okay. And then he suggested this combination of cyberpunk and vampires. How did you react to that idea?
Laura Kampo: I don’t remember, was the cyberpunk thing in there or just vampires?
John Antinori: No, it was cyberpunk and we said: „Sure!“ And I called one of my best friends and said: „What the hell’s cyberpunk?“ I had no idea what it was, but I think we just said: „Sure, that sounds great!“ We knew vampires were big and we vaguely knew what cyberpunk was.
Laura Kampo: One cultural reference of cyberpunk at the time was that steampunk was happening, everything with sepia tones and rusted metal and industrial age. You remember the Smashing Pumpkins video „Tonight, tonight“? It looks like a silent movie. Anyway, this kind of stuff, that was new, that whole throwback steampunk thing. So, that was part of it, too.
Stay Forever: Okay, and you made it your own. And that idea of actually referencing the original Bram Stoker Dracula story, was that yours?
Laura Kampo: Well, I remember reading everything we could that was vampire-related and then watching every movie, every old one, so you’ll find that we took some of the character names, like „Van Helsing“, but use them in a different way. I mean, I watched everything. The Anne Rice novels had just come out around then too, is that right, John?
John Antinori: Yes.
Laura Kampo: There is even a disco Dracula movie, Love at First Bite, I loved that one as a kid, that had some influence.
John Antinori: Oh, yeah.
Laura Kampo: You remember that one?
John Antinori: I do. I didn’t watch it for prep, but Susan Saint John James is in that I think.
Laura Kampo: Yes, and George Hamilton.
John Antinori: She’s gorgeous.
Laura Kampo: Tincture-tan George Hamilton. So, we studied everything and soaked everything up and then we mish-mashed some stuff, we changed some things and we made it our own thing.
Stay Forever: You definitely did. That’s one of the things which fascinated us the most about the game, the story and the elements that went into it. When we played the game, it took us a long time to realize that the game story is in fact ultimately a continuation of the Dracula story, just set 200 years in the future. The name „Van Helsing“ that you already mentioned, that’s there from the very beginning, but we initially just thought that’s an ironic reference. Only in the last third of the game did we start piecing the clues together and understand than Van Helsing is in fact the Van Helsing from the novel. And then it becomes obvious with the Dracula reveal at the end, which is the game’s twist in a sense. But we were quite taken with the idea of the vampire hunter Van Helsing succumbing to the dark side, and it was a pity when we realized that his character is not really fleshed out and he dies in the end, in the final battle, without any further explanation or last words or anything like that.
Laura Kampo: That’s sad. We left you hanging!
Stay Forever: I don’t know how much you had planned to actually take the plot of Dracula and continue telling it.
John Antinori: From my end, I don’t think we did intentionally. I’ve never read Dracula and I read some of the Anne Rice novels, but intentionally stayed away from source material, because I didn’t want to inadvertently be stealing something, right?
Laura Kampo: Wow! You stayed pure, huh? You stayed pure!
John Antinori: I don’t know about pure. I didn’t read any of the William Gibson novels, for example. He was obviously the big cyberpunk writer. But we read a lot of, was it Mondo 2000? There were some magazines that were about the cyberpunk world, right? So, psychotropic drugs and various things. Those were terrific. I read a lot of those things, and I always liked computers and coding, so I read books about hackers and all that just to get deeper into code. But I personally just stayed away from anything about Dracula or anything by William Gibson, because I didn’t want to inadvertently steal stuff from them.
Laura Kampo: I was the opposite. I can’t speak to where we got the references on this whole street drugs thing, jeez Louise, is that politically incorrect or what?
John Antinori: Mondo 2000 had tons of stuff about Vasopressin and all the stuff that’s in Lexapro now, right? Things that affect your brain and make it better without destroying it. There was a lot of that shit out there. I think we threw all of it in the game.
Laura Kampo: And do you remember, the word „nanotechnology“ was starting to enter the vernacular.
John Antinori: That was so new, it blew my mind. All of it felt so bleeding edge. Still kind of is.
Stay Forever: You mentioned that it was kind of unusual at the time to be a game designer, and you’re not just credited as game designers for BloodNet, but as game designers and writers, which is even more unusual, to have more than one person and then for both of these roles on a game. So, how did your cooperation work? Who did what in terms of design and writing for the game?
Laura Kampo: It was so hands-on and we just did everything. There was a ton of time of John and I locked in a room with a giant whiteboard, figuring everything out. The arc of everything, writing things up. We set aside time and just hatched everything out. But when we got to actually writing, the way we did it was in an editor. As we were writing the dialogue, we were writing the logic branches, “if – then”, so we could make it as layered as we wanted. So we were doing very simple coding at the same time that we were building the world. It was fun!
John Antinori: The artists were fabulous. They were working with 3D Studio Max before it had a preview function, so they would have to go in and pull some vertices and re-render it out and wait and see if it’s any good. And then have to go back and do it again. The developers were fantastic and they would build, as Laura said, pseudo-code editors, where we would go in and just write the copy, right into this bespoke tool. So, yeah, it was a lot of fun, but mostly everyone just worked around the clock.
Laura Kampo: We didn’t sleep, we didn’t have lives.
John Antinori: Yes, we worked at night. And because these things had to be out at Christmas, right around June, when the weather got nice in western Pennsylvania, you were working until midnight every weekend. It was glamourous.
Laura Kampo: *laughs* It was! Now you would call this iteration, but we would just go and ask the programmers: „Hey, we need another function, can you add this extra layer into the editor?“ They would do it and we’d get a new version of the editor and we basically added either a skill or a function or a combat aspect or something like that, on the fly.
John Antinori: It was agile!
Laura Kampo: Yeah! There you go!
John Antinori: Everything was on the fly.
Stay Forever: That sounds like both of you were doing almost everything in terms of game design and writing, but are there parts of the game where you would say, that’s my own? So is there something that’s specifically Laura Kampo and something that’s so John Antinori?
Laura Kampo: Definitely characters, we divvied up the characters, right?
John Antinori: I don’t even remember, Laura. My stuff’s obviously great, you know.
Laura Kampo: You know what else I remembered? Microsoft Project had just come out! So we were starting to be able to plot our progress and did reporting how far along we were. But we would divvy up hundreds of characters. Did you write our lead character Stark, or did we divide that up?
John Antinori: I don’t know, but I know that Stark, Ransom Stark’s photo, is a photoshopped version of the photo from my first wedding. Pretty much the whole company’s photos were in there, somewhere. And also, I might as well say this now, we were very concerned about the original box, because the fellow who was one of our earlier designers and did our box designs, he completely ripped off a photograph of Eric Clapton from the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. If you search that and look at the cover of the original BloodNet, it was so much ripped off from that.
John Antinori: We were worried that we’d get sued.
Laura Kampo: I mean, it’s Clapton with fangs.
Stay Forever: Let’s speak about characters. I have to say we had so much fun with the dialogues in the game. I mean, there is stuff to criticize about the game, we’ll come to that, but one thing that I feel is holding up extremely well to this day is the writing. The writing shines when it comes to creating quirky but also realistic characters which seem to have a place in the world and an agenda and they speak with their own recognizable voice. I feel that for the vast majority of adventure games out there, dialogue is something that gets in the way of gameplay, so the sooner it’s over, the better. Not so in BloodNet, where we actually were looking forward to speaking to new characters, and we would have loved to hear much more commentary from our party members. So my question would be: Do you still recall how you approached character design?
Laura Kampo: I think we would say: I want this one to be a mishmash of a type of somebody we knew or somebody in popular culture or something like that, and we’d just have fun with it. Do you remember, John?
John Antinori: First of all: Thank you! I am so happy to hear you say that you enjoyed reading it.
Laura Kampo: I forgot to say that, yes.
Stay Forever: You’re welcome!
John Antinori: Honestly, that actually means a hell of a lot 20 year later. 20 years? Whatever it is.
Stay Forever: 25.
Laura Kampo: These games were on floppy disk, right? This was our last game before CD-ROMs. We didn’t have a lot of animation. We didn’t have a lot of graphics. It was like a step-up from text adventures. So the text was a lot of it. Laura and I are both writers and writerly people. I just remember sitting in a room with really loud music and you’re trying to author 50 hours of gameplay, so you’ve got to load it up. Basically, you throw every idea you had into it. I just remember how I had a hell of a lot of fun just saying: Okay, here is, uhm, Milwaukee John Jack, he is a killer … and then just put any kind of crazy shit you want to do in there.
Laura Kampo: We didn’t overthink it, because we had to move.
John Antinori: Right.
Stay Forever: One of the things where you went almost over the top, in terms of characters, is the number of people that you can recruit for your party, because even when you start the game, there’s quite a lot to choose from, I think like a dozen or something, and then, as you play the game, the game keeps adding more, and in the end it’s 26 people which you can recruit. That is a lot by RPG standards, and we were really wondering why. Why so many?
Laura Kampo: We just went overboard, I don’t know why.
John Antinori: Yeah, it was Laura’s idea and was clearly a mistake, so…
Laura Kampo: We wanted to have absolutely no life.
John Antinori: *laughs* Yeah, that’s right!
Laura Kampo: Why did we do that to ourselves?
John Antinori: You get older, you realize: Keep it simple! I don’t know, I think we were just having fun. And again, back then, the promise was always: This is a big game and you can play it for a long time.
Laura Kampo: And we were right at this split between genres, you know. We were not pure RPG. We could have gone either way, more hardcore RPG, but we went the other way. I don’t remember actually having a decision-making process which way we were going to lean. Do you remember that?
John Antinori: I don’t, but I think it was just organic, because we had done RPGs and there was combat systems and all that. I actually think it makes BloodNet a better game. We never did a BloodNet sequel, but we did Hell and Ripper after that, which were also cyberpunk demons and cyberpunk Jack the Ripper. I personally feel like BloodNet’s a stronger game because it has the adventure elements, but it had the RPG elements, the combat system and the skills. Whether or not those systems worked or were as strong as in other games, I just thought that made it a better game. But I think we just naturally did it.
Stay Forever: It was not a mandate from MicroProse to have an RPG-adventure mix, that was your call?
John Antinori: Yes.
Laura Kampo: Whatever was going on in MicroProse, Lawrence fought the good fight for us down there, right?
John Antinori: He did.
Laura Kampo: Whatever happened down there, he let us get spared, and I don’t know how much he had to struggle or anything, but we just kept on working and we didn’t get much flak. The biggest concern was time and then the size of the game, as it meant more cost of goods. It was something like a buck a disk, wasn’t it?
John Antinori: Yeah.
Laura Kampo: So they’d keep checking for cost of goods, and the size of the game was going to make a major impact on how the P&L [profit & loss] of the game looked.
John Antinori: And I do want to re-emphasize, Lawrence Schick was great. And also the team that worked on this, the designers, the programmers, they worked their asses off right alongside us and were really terrific.
Laura Kampo: But you realize how short the list is? There’s six artists on this project.
John Antinori: That’s why they worked all night long.
Laura Kampo: That’s crazy! A bunch of us are still friends from those days, because we were all pretty young and we just worked and we were having fun.
John Antinori: Kelly and…
Laura Kampo: Kelly Trout, now Kelly Kern, yep, still friends with her. Bill Petras …
John Antinori: Quinno Martin, Bill Petras, yes.
Laura Kampo: Quinno’s a professor now!
John Antinori: He’s a professor of philosophy, actually.
Laura Kampo: And we still work with the composer, Michael Bross.
John Antinori: Writing everything in MIDI.
Laura Kampo: Some of the people at MicroProse I ended up working with when I was at Disney. They formed a new company and some of the people spun off and they did some handheld games for us. It’s a very incestuous industry. When you find good people, you kept working with them.
Stay Forever: It sounds like you really had a good time in that team back then. And it’s interesting for me to hear, to be honest, that having the RPG elements in there was originally your idea and not a mandate, because I had the slight assumption that that was something that you were forced to work with, maybe because it was the base of Challenge of the Five Realms and you just decided to take that technical base and work from there. But now it sounds like the RPG elements are something that you definitely wanted to have in there.
Laura Kampo: Yep. It felt like the next step from that game.
John Antinori: It was just natural. I mean, we had been doing RPGs, we were also very story-driven, so it was just like: „Of course we’re going to have RPG elements“, and we just did it.
Stay Forever: Okay, because that brings me to maybe the most…
John Antinori: … maybe not well.
Laura Kampo: *laughs* Here it comes! Segue, I feel it! Go ahead and let’s have it!
Stay Forever: … that brings me to the fundamental question actually, it’s not even a value judgement per se, but a question, because the more we played the game, the more we reached a point where we felt that there are a lot of RPG systems in the game, quite a lot – there’s the very elaborate character creation process, the character sheet, the combat, the equipment system, the crafting and so on, and then it took us quite a while of playing, hours of playing, to realize for the first time that the character skill values don’t change.
John Antinori: Nothing matters. *laughs*
Stay Forever: And it said in the manual that it would! The manual promised that by using skills, like in combat, they would improve, and that’s just not the case in the game. So that’s the question: What happened there?
John Antinori: First of all, it does. You should play it again, because it does. It does matter.
Stay Forever: Yes, it does. But it does in a very intransparent manner and only in a minimal range.
Laura Kampo: I don’t remember where we did go wrong. The factors those things affected or the ranges weren’t wide enough on all of the skills … I don’t know.
John Antinori: I would point out that if you watch Big Bang Theory, there’s an episode where they make their girlfriends watch the first Indiana Jones. At the end of the movie, they observe that nothing Indiana Jones does actually makes any difference. So I think we’re in good company. Neither Laura nor I were big RPG players. I did not play Dungeons & Dragons, I didn’t study the systems. We were more writers and more interested in the story. Intellectually I’m interested in the idea of systems and combat systems and points, and obviously there are a whole lot of economies build on people collecting things now. I found that interesting, but as a person I didn’t really enjoy playing those things, so any defects we have in there frankly are probably because we weren’t hardcore RPG folks.
Laura Kampo: The things you liked about it, the way it was written, is because we weren’t hardcore and that’s the same reason why you don’t like the things that you don’t like, because we weren’t hardcore. So we had our weaknesses. We loved the writing so much and maybe some of the other stuff suffered a bit.
Stay Forever: Who designed the RPG systems and in particular the combat?
John Antinori: I think we did with the programming team.
Stay Forever: So there was no dedicated RPG designer or combat designer?
John Antinori: No, we were running pretty lean.
Stay Forever: I’m going to share a theory with you that we formed while playing, and you can then either accept it or disprove it. In the readme file which came with the game, there was mentioned or implied that more random combat was supposed to happen, random combat on the Manhattan map and even in cyberspace. So we concluded that that was cut out, and we assumed that it was cut out because combat is just so tedious, it’s not really fun and it’s in the way of progressing in the game. And once you decided to cut that out you realized that there isn’t much point in having the entire character system anymore, if you don’t have random combat and only a limited number of combat instances in the game, and then you decided to tone that down as well to just make it work. So is that theory valid or is that completely wrong?
Laura Kampo: Are you saying that in the readme file we sort of apologized for the combat system?
Stay Forever: No, no, no … you did not. It’s just, it’s implied…
John Antinori: „We know this sucks.“
Laura Kampo: „We are really sorry about that.“
Stay Forever: No, the readme file mentions that combat can occur in cyberspace. Which doesn’t happen in the game. So we thought at the time the readme was written, which must have been towards the end of the production I guess, that that was still possible.
Laura Kampo: The readme is the very last minute thing.
John Antinori: You’re right, there was no combat in cyberspace. Because we ran out of time, probably.
Stay Forever: But you had that planned at some point?
John Antinori: Yeah. I have to say though, just talking about readme files is really making me happy. I forgot all about that.
Laura Kampo: *laughs* I’m sorry you’re disappointed at that but it sounds like we were too.
John Antinori: *laughs* It sounds like we were.
Stay Forever: *laughs* You were definitely not apologizing, that’s just the assumption that I had. But is it true that you had planned to have more combat and more random combat and combat in cyberspace and so on?
John Antinori: I think so. But cyberspace was so hard to do. I think we were planning on having combat in cyberspace, but keep in mind: We were inventing our own idea of what cyberspace was. It’s so commonplace now, but back then the idea of decking units and the idea of interfacing your central nervous system with a computer was so new. So I think it wasn’t that we ran out of time. It was just like: I don’t know what combat would be here, we have plenty of it, good or bad, and so we just abandoned whatever we were planning there.
Stay Forever: Let’s talk about cyberspace briefly, because in the game it’s a physical location and a peculiar location in a way, and it has its own look. So you had to give it a form somehow. Do you still remember how this came about?
John Antinori: It’s not physical, it’s notional. I will point that out. *laughs*
Stay Forever: Okay.
John Antinori: I’m teasing. But again, I didn’t read any of the cyberpunk stuff. The whole idea of it was challenging, so we were trying to make it very much a notional space. We only had three disks and limited art resources to visualize it. This was 1993, it was like: What does it even mean to hook your brain up to a computer? So, we wrote all these pages about like how cyberspace works, it needed to have wells and various things. I remember Chris Short, who was one of the developers, was like: „Oh, you guys need to do some more work because I don’t understand a thing you’re talking about!“ Because it didn’t make any sense. We were trying to figure it out.
Laura Kampo: What it visually looked like had to be the art team.
John Antinori: That was Quinno, right? Quinno Martin was the lead designer. Big, strong, tattooed, dreadlocked guy.
Laura Kampo: He means visual designers, art direction.
John Antinori: Yes. And Quinno owned a tattoo shop. So he would sit in his office in the summer with the air conditioning on and a blanket over, because it was too cold, even though it was 90 degrees outside. And then he would leave and go do tattoos, and then show up at the bar at 10:30, 11 at night, and slap down a big wad of cash he had just made from giving people tattoos. But he was great.
Stay Forever: Do you remember whether you already knew about the World Wide Web back then? Were you in the Internet already?
John Antinori: No. Pre-Internet.
Laura Kampo: Yeah. I was looking in the manual. We had a glossary in the back. It’s a cyberpunk glossary. It says: “Web – another name for cyberspace.”
John Antinori: Really?
Laura Kampo: Definition of cyberspace: “The place where computers interact with one another.”
John Antinori: Accurate.
Laura Kampo: “The space information travels from modem to modem.”
John Antinori: Wow.
Laura Kampo: “A virtual reality dimension.”
John Antinori: Wow. I have to look my box up. I have one in my bathroom, it’s still shrinkwrapped. We had no IT. Our developers strung a network up through the ceiling because we had developers who would port our games to other platforms. Some of them worked in other countries. So occasionally we would have to upload source code to England so they could port it to the Amiga. And you would set up the transfer at night and then hope that it didn’t crash. I think I got an AOL account maybe few months later.
Stay Forever: The way that cyberspace works in the game is not too far away from how the World Wide Web works: You enter cyberspace, then you enter an address and then you get to a well, which is basically the same as a website. But the way that cyberspace is used in the game it’s less about information. The theme of the game is more about your consciousness in that virtual space and being able to upload your consciousness and it being broken into parts and manipulated.
John Antinori: Yes. I think the decking units were called soul boxes, right?
Stay Forever: In the decking unit there were soul boxes, yes.
John Antinori: Yeah. And you were a data angel when you were in cyberspace. There was definitely something about consciousness.
Stay Forever: Coming back to the number of systems in the game, because if I look at what’s written about BloodNet these days – there are quite a few retro reviews, Let’s Plays and stuff like that – and whatever you read about the game, one word is almost certain to pop up, and that’s the word “ambitious”. In the context of BloodNet that’s a bit of a double-edged word because it implies that the game tried to do a lot of innovative stuff, but ultimately wasn’t able to pull everything off. My question would be: What was your ambition for the game? Did you have one?
John Antinori: I did. Honestly as far as creative things I have done it’s probably one of the most fun things I was involved in. But as Laura mentioned, nobody was paying attention from an editorial standpoint. We had free range to do what we wanted to do. We were exploring something called cyberspace, we had vampires, we had psychotropic drugs. It was just so much to throw in there. So my ambition was to build the goddamn thing up – pardon my language –, just fill it up with as much stuff I could blow out of my head. I think it was ambitious and it succeeded in some ways and didn’t in others. But my ambition was to have fun and throw as much stuff into it as possible.
Laura Kampo: Speaking as somebody that spend 16 years at Disney, where we did things with a lot of market research and have kids test the games and get their read on it … and on this, we basically made a game that we would want to play. That’s what we did. Talk about a focus group, right?
John Antinori: Yeah. You don’t realize at the time, but other than writing a novel where you’re by yourself, you don’t get many opportunities to just do your thing and put it out there.
Stay Forever: Laura, a while ago you mentioned the word “layered”, and I think that’s a very good term for the game. The interesting thing is that it succeeds at a couple of things which I’m not entirely sure whether they were by design or by accident rather. For instance, we already talked about the number of party members and the decision to not have that much of a character development in terms of improving skills. Your main character, Ransom Stark, when you start the game he has pretty low stats and they don’t grow much, if at all. All of the other party members are much more powerful at any given time. So you want to have them. Your party is much more powerful than you are, and you rely on these people. And also, because there are so many of them and you sometimes need specific characters for specific situations, you also need to exchange them. So your companions and which you take along at which point in time has a lot more impact in that game than in other RPGs for the simple fact that your main character is weak. And that’s great actually. That’s a very interesting gameplay experience, and I don’t know whether that was by design – I assume not?
John Antinori: My honest answer is that I don’t remember. But I think it was by design. I’m a big comic book guy, I love the Justice League, but I always loved the supporting characters like Green Arrow and Hawkman, The Atom. Let me see what they can do. I don’t know if we consciously sat down and talked about it, but from my own standpoint the lead characters to me are always less interesting than what, you know, Hawkman or The Atom can bring to the party. So I think some of that was by intention.
Laura Kampo: I think we were concerned with making sure you needed to use all the members of your party so much so we toned down the lead character. But I think that might have been a happy accident, I guess.
John Antinori: How interesting is Ransom Stark? He is the player, right?
Stay Forever: The interesting thing about Ransom Stark as the protagonist of the game is that he is not a blank slate. He is a character, most definitely in the way he talks, he has a lot of dialogue. But the most fascinating thing about him in the game is that everybody seems to know him. He really is somebody who is almost a celebrity in the subculture that he moves in, in this circle of deckers and rage gangers etc. And from a player perspective that’s a very interesting experience because when you go to a new location and meet new people, you also learn more about your main character because they know him and they are going to tell you new stuff about your character. They’re going to provide context.
Laura Kampo: I seem to remember us wanting to skip that step where he has to explain himself upon every introduction. It’s so tedious just to remind everybody: This is my quest and this is who I am. We just ditched all that by making everybody be acquainted with everybody. Didn’t we do that on purpose?
John Antinori: I think so, yes. The game had enough writing in it. It was already enough as it was.
Stay Forever: That was definitely a good decision, then. Let’s talk about the very other end of the story: The grand finale, the fight against Dracula. The resolution is that you meet in cyberspace with the character who’s supposed to heal you from your vampire curse. And then rather than being healed, there is this cliffhanger ending where Incubus becomes a sentient being and a new threat to Manhattan. Why that ending?
Laura Kampo: So it feels like we pulled a bait-and-switch on you? I can’t remember that. Do you remember that, John? Why did we do that?
John Antinori: I know it was your idea, so…
Laura Kampo: *laughs* Were we just like: „Oh, this will really be a twist!“ We didn’t think of it as the big „screw you“.
John Antinori: I don’t remember the ending, but my guess is, we were assuming we were going to do a sequel. So we were leaving the door open for franchise-building, but MicroProse went out of business and all that and we ended up not doing another BloodNet. But we did two other games that were in the cyberpunk genre, Hell and Ripper, though those were not sequels. That was our trilogy of cyberpunk games. I think we were probably just leaving the door open to bring Ransom Stark back and to do a sequel. In fact, I think somewhere out there, there’s a box that says like „BloodNet 2000“ or something, but that’s about as far as it got.
Stay Forever: Did you have any concrete idea of how the story would have continued?
John Antinori: No, I didn’t.
Laura Kampo: We must have. Somewhere it’s in a spiral notebook somewhere.
John Antinori: But also, when you finish these games, you’re exhausted. You’re barely getting them out the door, right? Again, this is a long time ago, there’s no internet, you weren’t delivering your code over a network, you had to burn it on a CD, send it out to be mastered and that thing had to be right, because once it was mastered, that’s it! So, by the time you finish these things, you’re completely exhausted and really just glad to be rid of it. It’s not like the theatre, where the curtain goes up, or even a book where there’s a publishing party, you push these things out in the middle of the night and they burn the CD and then you go home and sleep for a week and move on to the next one.
Stay Forever: Did you get feedback back then about the game?
John Antinori: Oh yes, there’d be reviews in magazines.
Laura Kampo: Probably got some letters on paper.
John Antinori: And we had a support line, so people would call in. I mean, often that was just because they were having trouble with their video card or something. Here we would get feedback, but yes, the game was well-reviewed.
Stay Forever: And was it successful?
John Antinori: Yes! I don’t remember the sales numbers. The scale was small. I remember it being like if you sold 150,000 of them, you were doing alright and making money.
Stay Forever: You mentioned, John, being exhausted at the end of the production, and that kind of answers another question which I had. Because in particular towards the end of the gameplay experience, it feels kind of rushed. I already mentioned the ending is not really satisfying, but there are a couple of loose ends, there are some quests which go nowhere essentially, there’s a couple of artifacts in the game which seem to be left over from an idea which you had, but didn’t implement, so we had the impression that you were under some kind of time pressure, that production time was simply over and MicroProse forced you to release it. Was that the case?
John Antinori: No.
Laura Kampo: It’s not like MicroProse was the big bad HQ.
John Antinori: No!
Laura Kampo: It’s more like: It had to be done in time to get it in the boxes for Christmas. Which means November, or Thanksgiving. And you just never have enough time.
John Antinori: It certainly wasn’t rushed for corporate reasons and I don’t think it was rushed, it’s just you have deadlines. You have to get it done. So it wasn’t rushed, but exhaustion does set in at a certain point and a few things get left out.
Laura Kampo: Plus, as said, we cast the net really wide. If we had kept it a little bit leaner, we could have gone in and just made those tracks absolutely perfect, but we just scattered it so wide and so far, and once you did, you couldn’t pull those out without having all those domino effects. It could affect other things, you couldn’t just yank out an entire thread.
John Antinori: You’re right.
Laura Kampo: You had to see it through, so that’s when we would skimp on how deep each thing went, because you couldn’t just pull it out, you just had to do it, and you ended up doing it lighter than you had intended. That’s why it comes across like that.
Stay Forever: One of these „loose ends“ is that the manual has this kind of mission statement in the beginning of what Ransom Stark has to accomplish in the game, like being cured of his vampirism, and one of these things is the question: “Can you find love?” Well, the answer to that, from our playthrough, is „No“, because we couldn’t.
Laura Kampo: *laughs*
Stay Forever: So, we were wondering, who would the love interest have been? Did we miss something?
John Antinori: Wow! Find love!
Laura Kampo: Did we have that in there?
John Antinori: We were obviously young, we were obviously very young. *laughs*
Laura Kampo: This sounds really sad, but I remember the manual going to print way earlier than having to replicate the disks. So, that’s why there’s some things out of sync with the manual and with the actual game. But I don’t even remember describing some kind of romantic aspect. Did Ransom Stark have a girlfriend, do you remember?
John Antinori: They were just little sprites, it was hard to be pretty sexy with just those little, tiny sprites.
Laura Kampo: Not only is he a vampire, but he’s lonely as hell. Sorry, yeah, we left out this entire aspect of him.
Stay Forever: Well, there is Melissa Van Helsing, there is this femme fatale in the game and she at some point confesses her love, but then she betrays him and so on, and you can’t really save her, at least I think you can’t, because she dies in a combat. And then there is your ex-girlfriend, Monique, also in the game, but there’s not really a spark between them. So there would be characters where some romance would have been possible, but unfortunately, there is none in the game, as far as we could find.
John Antinori: No.
Laura Kampo: No.
Stay Forever: John, you mentioned that it’s difficult to be sexy with these tiny sprites, but I have to say that one of the things which are really nice about the game is the character portraits. The pixel art in them is great, actually, so they are really nice to look at. But on the other hand, one thing we found a bit jarring is that there are different art styles in the game, like there is this beautiful pixel art, but then there’re the backgrounds which are pre-rendered and have less detail in them, and then there’s the beautiful map of Manhattan, but then you have the sprites on these backgrounds which are rather clunky, so it doesn’t fit that well.
Laura Kampo: I loved that map.
John Antinori: Quinno made that map, I love that map!
Laura Kampo: And you’re right. We were trying to use 3D and then those little portraits… remember the love and care that went into that? By the way, a lot of those portraits are people from the office.
John Antonori: It’s all real people, yes, that’s pretty much all the office. They’re family members or photographs we used without any licenses.
Stay Forever: So are the two of you in there as well?
John Antinori: My wedding picture’s in there. I think I’m Ransom Stark.
Laura Kampo: I think mine was a hacker or something. I had big hair, late 80s fashion. We put ourselves in there, we did little cameos.
John Antinori: That map, that’s the other thing: Back then, Manhattan was still scary. You could still make it scary. Just going back to how different things were. Even just playing around Manhattan felt like such a fun thing to do.
Laura Kampo: Right. I was in New York before you were. I lived there in ’87/’88.
Stay Forever: Back when it was really dangerous to live there.
John Antinori: Exactly. She committed a number of crimes.
Stay Forever: Graffiti on the subway trains and stuff like that.
John Antinori: That’s the least of it.
Laura Kampo: Alright, you were talking about the merging of art styles and at the time, we thought that we’re putting in this 2D RPG stuff, but there’s no reason we can’t have beautiful backgrounds. And the artists had fun with that. We also wanted the portraits to look really nice, because that was going to give you your feeling, that and the dialogue, that’s all you had to work with. So, I guess we were trying to do a mashup of it and you’re right, it is a little John jarring, but that 3D stuff was still kind of new at the time, so we thought we were being pretty avantgarde.
John Antinori: That was our first game we did with 3D Studio. Challenge of the Five Realms and everything else was done with paint programs.
Stay Forever: It does give it kind of a unique style, but it also hasn’t aged that well, unfortunately.
John Antinori: No, there’s no way it could, there’s no way it could. Again, keep in mind, this was pre-3D-Studio-Max. There wasn’t even a preview function. The designers had to design something and then…
Laura Kampo: … it rendered for hours.
Stay Forever: It does add to the edgy atmosphere that the game has, and atmosphere is definitely also one of the really strong sides. The writing adds into that, the entire setting, the darkness etc., but ultimately, if I had to summarize my fascination with the game and what I really liked about it, it’s the number of systems and all the stuff which you put in there. All of the characters, all of the dialogues, the quests and the openness and dynamic nature of the game world, that creates an impression of impressive depth, because there are so many possible interconnections. The game implies that my decisions actually matter. The world may change based on at what time I visit what location with what character in my party and how I handled such and such previous situation, and the game does provide examples of that, even in the very beginning. If I have that cyborg character Nimrod in my party for instance, then most people in the game world won’t talk to me, because he’s a killer. And if I sell drugs to one kid in Central Park, to Dodger, then he dies and I can’t recruit him. So there’s consequence and there’s this implication that the game tracks a huge range of causes and effects, and I think this fantasy is immensely fascinating and captivating to a certain type of player, such as me. And I think that’s the reason why, for example, when Melissa Van Helsing dies in that battle in Grant’s Tomb which I mentioned, that it’s entirely conceivable to me, as a player, that there may be some way to save her, provided that I uncovered the correct conditions. And that promise of efficacy is at the core of the game’s appeal, because BloodNet succeeds better than many other games at maintaining that illusion for quite a while, through it’s wonderful non-linearity for instance. And also through its inherent danger, because it allows you to kill quest givers and sell quest items and ruin the game, but it doesn’t hold your hand. It lets you continue until you reach a dead-end, and that’s intriguing. Ultimately, there are few decisions in the game which actually lead to significantly different outcomes, but it takes a long time to realize that and along the way you have a lot of fun.
Laura Kampo: Oh, wow!
John Antinori: That’s awesome!
Laura Kampo: What a wonderful thing to say. Thank you!
Stay Forever: You’re welcome! Thank you for making the game, because we really had a good time with it.
John Antinori: I’m thrilled you played it and you enjoyed it and that we’re talking about it, that’s just really great.
Laura Kampo: That makes me so happy. And when you say all these things, I realize that it would be so hard to do that same thing today. So much of everything I’ve done since has always had to have design by committee and everybody checking in along the way. The fact that we were small and that we didn’t 100% know what we were doing led to all those things you say, but also lead to the things that disappointed you, but we couldn’t even have either of those things happen in today’s climate, the way the industry is, so it was kind of a weird, perfect little time and that just makes me so happy.
John Antinori: Yes, if I could go back and redo one thing, I’d love to go back and do BloodNet again, with new technology, and explore the world more. As Laura said, it was a lot of fun.
Stay Forever: It would be amazing if that were to happen, because one of the reasons why people like us consider BloodNet a diamond in the rough is because it’s that unfulfilled promise. There’s a nucleus of a fantastic game and in many ways it succeeds, but in some ways it doesn’t, so there’s that huge what-if scenario: What if somebody were to make a game like that with a bit more time and a bit more polish, wouldn’t that be the perfect game?
John Antinori: I just need a few hundred thousand dollars and we’re right on that. *chuckles*
Stay Forever: To wrap up, you’re already mentioned that you continued to work on cyberpunk games. Had you found your favorite genre there?
John Antinori: I mean, it was mine. I was never a big fantasy person. Spacefarer stuff is fine, but it’s not tied to Earth, so once I learned what cyberpunk was, I was happy to do three straight cyberpunk games. Hell wasn’t very successful, with Ripper we went straight into adventure games. I think it could have benefitted from having a combat system. But I loved the whole idea of technology married to – whether it’d be vampires or demons or Jack the Ripper. I thought that was just fertile ground, so I enjoyed that.
Laura Kampo: I went off in a different direction: After Hell, Take-Two had a brief foray into kids‘ games. I took that on. They didn’t do so well, and they didn’t want anything to do with it afterwards, but that’s what led me to Disney and then I had sixteen years of making games at Disney on all platforms after that. And I used all these skills that we developed in that room, doing this game. Anything after that was a piece of cake after we had done every aspect of everything like that. I found myself able to use that for the kids‘ games. And I ended up liking that, too. Coming from vampires and cyberpunks, and then after that I was working with Dalmatian puppies and The Little Mermaid. But I’m glad that we did what we did in the year that we did it, or it wouldn’t have led to that.
John Antinori: I think I tried to help you. I think Bill Cosby’s Picture Pages was a license we had, and incredibly enough, we were making a computer game and then that was our night project. Laura was terrific at it, and I was supposed to write some dialogue for kids and I sucked at it, I remember.
Laura Kampo: That was not your forte!
John Antinori: I turned in my script and Laura’s like: „John, don’t get mad at me, I had to mark it up!“ I’m like: „I don’t care, I suck at this!“ So it was completely terrible.
Laura Kampo: They were just complicated! I was like „You can’t write for kids with all these clauses in the sentences and have them following it!“
John Antinori: So yeah, we kind of diverged after that. *chuckles*
Stay Forever: And when and why did your time in the games industry end?
John Antinori: Because it’s a shitty business man.
Laura Kampo: John got out. I spend 16 years at Disney and then I left the corporate game. Now I just do freelance work. But John got out of the games business a while ago. He became a full-out grown-up.
John Antinori: While I lived in New York, I didn’t want to move… there’s not much of a games business in New York, and you were working long hours and at a certain point, if you move up in the business, you’re not doing creative work anymore. If I’m going to project manage or executive manage a sports game, then I might as well do something else. And that’s when the Internet hit in the 90s, so I joined up with RGA, which was a big web agency, it’s still the largest web agency in the world, and moved out of games business in ’99… last century.
Laura Kampo: The thing that you mentioned, that’s what happened to me. After I did several games hands-on myself, that’s what they do, they move you up and you move further and further away from the actual creative, and it’s a step up but yeah… it’s sad you don’t get to do the fun stuff as much anymore.
John Antinori: You might as well be selling raviolis, right? It’s just not fun anymore.
Laura Kampo: I did miss the hands-on stuff and doing the flashback to the things we did on this game… looking at it has been fun because the volume of work we did in a short amount of time… we did a lot. We sure did a lot. And it was a lot of fun.
Stay Forever: Finally, as a kind of final judgment about the game: It’s been 25 years since BloodNet was released, that’s a long time. So if you look back at the game and the time of its creation, what is your primary emotion?
Laura Kampo: From this call, it’s the true definition of nostalgia: It’s painful, but you don’t mind it and I just have fond memories of that time because it also means a time in my life when we were moving and shaking, we were working like crazy. Everybody was a group of close-knit friends and we were so proud of what we were doing, and it was just a glorious time. It was a glorious time. So this has been a fun revisiting of that happy time in my life.
John Antinori: Yes, everything Laura said. And the other thing I look back at is: I marvel at how focused I could be. There was no internet, my computer was not linked to anything … just go into a room and focus and create stuff all day long. That level of focus and enthusiasm and mission was great.
Laura Kampo: We were really lucky.
John Antinori: And thank you for letting us relive it.
Laura Kampo: Yes, we appreciate it.
Stay Forever: Oh, you’re very welcome. Thank you for sharing all of this. It was such a pleasure talking to you. And if I were you I would also look back at that time and that project with pride, because you have created something lasting. Something that people enjoy to this day and will continue to enjoy in the future. Something that has its place in the history of gaming. It may not be entirely „up there“ near the top, but it is something unique, and something that creates enjoyment for the people who play it. It certainly did for us. And it was a wonderful opportunity to talk to you and get a couple of these questions answered which we had while we were playing it, so: Thanks a lot.
Laura Kampo: Well, thank you.
John Antinori: Thank you, Christian.