Silas Warner was the Behemoth behind the creation of Castle Wolfenstein that came out in 1981 and changed the gaming industry for good. It was the first game that included digitized speech and it was the starting point where early war games took flight and have been one of the ruling genres of the gaming world since.
Warner who passed away in 2004, was one of the first pioneers of game design. But he has somewhat been forgotten today unlike those few names that we know today, who found fame and fortune.
Well, that is partly his own doing too because he actually preferred it this way. His company Muse Software was one of his greatest successes. He didn’t behave like a businessman nor did he have a mind of one.
As a result, the company went under in 1987 and all of its assets and the Wolfenstein name were taken away by the broker but that was certainly not the end of Wolfenstein.
In 1992, a company called id Software bought the rights to the famous game for $5,000 and the co-founders of the company, John Carmack and John Romero, who were huge fans of the original game, went on to make Wolfenstein 3D.
That game was an amazing breakthrough in the world of first-person shooting games that continues to this very day. Carmack and Romero didn’t just stop there and went on to make Doom, which was a blockbuster that made them a fortune.
The Wolfenstein name later went on to be in the possession of Bethesda Softworks in 2009 and since 2014, they make four new games under the Wolfenstein banner including the 2019’s Wolfenstein: Youngblood. So, even if Warner didn’t get all of the glory, his creation certainly didn’t go unnoticed.
Warner eventually left the gaming world to use his talents in a variety of other jobs regarding computers. He was a fluent German speaker and loved composing sacred music. But as you might have probably guessed, his life was never easy, up-to-the point that he had to live in cheap motel rooms.
On the personal relationships and health front, he married quite later in life, but it was a happy relationship and didn’t falter even when he spent his last years in severe illness.
“He had insulin-dependent diabetes combined with kidney disease, plus arthritis and high blood pressure,” says Kari Ann Owen (his wife). “That’s quite a combination. Silas had to devote himself to staying alive and to his medical needs. It was just genetics and bad luck. But Silas and I were very determined people.”
While speaking about her husband, Owen went into quite a lot of detail about his life and how his early life was quite interesting that molded the man’s personality. “He had beauty, sensitivity, morality, and towering intellect,” she says. “Silas’ magnificent character was formed by his mother, who almost gave her life for him.”
The first ten years of Warner’s life were spent in Chicago. His father was a wealthy industrialist, who was quite violent towards Warner and his mother. “He threw Silas against a wall,” Owen says. “Later, Silas’ mother, Ann, was driving with her son on a Chicago freeway. She pulled over to find the brake linings had been cut.”
The two of them left his father and went off to live in Indiana. His mother struggled a lot while raising him on his own and yet still found time to get herself certified to work as a teacher. “She was devoted to him,” says Owen. “She supported him in every way but allowed him his independence. He spent a lot of time alone while she worked. He used that time reading and learning about the things that interested him, especially science and history.”
In his early years, Warner went to a laboratory school where his brilliance was properly tried and tested. “They were oriented toward gifted and talented children,” says Owen. “A teacher there worked very closely with Silas, who was way ahead academically. Unfortunately, his social skills were not way ahead. So he needed help in a lot of areas. But he had a wonderful teacher who helped him and prepared him for his career.”
Physically, Warner was unusually large, and he also had a quirky personality. This combination often made Warner a mark for bullies. When Warner finally had enough, he got rid of a bully by knocking him out.
An old friend of Warner from the old days, remembers Ann and her son, saying, “I can’t verify it, but Ann said he received a perfect score on his SATs. She was a bit disappointed that Silas, being incredibly gifted as he was, was wasting his life away as a games programmer. It seemed all a bit superficial to her, a quiet and humble lady who was raised a Quaker. She would have liked to have seen him go on to an academic career.”
He was properly enchanted by Computers.
Warner attended the University of Indiana where he found out that he had severe intolerance for alcohol. “It was absolute disintegrator for him,” says Owen. “He never took another drink again.”
Owen and Warner were strangers at that time and would not meet for another 20 years. Owen was attending the University of California, Berkeley, and she too had extreme intolerance for alcohol after some very bad life experiences. “Both of us had undiagnosed blood sugar disorders which eventually were diagnosed,” she says. “When we married, our home was alcohol-free and our friends were very happy with the great parties we had, without alcohol being served.”
Warner got a degree in Physics, but he always knew that he was going to work in Computers one day and he was not wrong.
Warner was a very dedicated professional. Even in his school days, he divided his time into two parts, in reporting stories for the school’s radio station and in working as a computer programmer. But he was destined to make computer games which became apparent in 1976.
In 1976, Warner started working as a software programmer in a company known as Commercial Credit. Here, he developed training-based computer games that helped agents prepare for their customer interactions.
Warner also developed games in his spare time and played them with friends. It was a game called Robot Wars in which the robots received their orders from the players at the start of the game and then the battle will commence.
The Era of The Muse
Ed Zaron who was also an employee of Commercial Credit co-founded Muse with Warner. In an interview which was conducted in 1984, Zaron talked about his relationship with Warner.
“He was just an acquaintance of mine, and I mentioned to him that I was going to buy an Apple computer that night and how excited I was about it,” Zaron said. “But I really didn’t know him that well. After work, I went to the computer store. I brought the computer home, and I was taking it out of the box when the doorbell rang”.
“It was Silas!” Zaron continued. “I barely even knew him, and he just walked right in to see my computer. Well, Silas is the kind of guy who can run a manual across his chest and understand it completely. […] So he sat down in front of my computer and started to write programs. I just sat there and watched.”
Zaron had to go to the party that night and when he told Warner about it, he kept on coding. “When I got home around 1:00 a.m. Silas was still there,” said Zaron. “He had a couple of little games running on the computer. One of them he called The Apple Tree, and to play it you had to catch apples falling off a tree.”
Warner was so mesmerized by the Apple II that he bought one for himself the very next day. “It was $1,399, but it was a really big machine. I got together with Ed Zaron and Jim Black, who was an accountant for the department that sent out the bills. These two people and I got together at night and started producing cassettes.”
The three friends started creating computer games and then started selling them at various fairs and conventions all over the East Coast.
“We recorded cassettes all night, after working all day,” recalled Warner. “We drove up [to computer fairs] in a truck with a box of tapes and sold Tank Wars and maze games at an incredible rate. We began to realize that there really might be something to this software business.”
The trio dedicated their time to software development on a full-time basis that always drew huge crowds of fanatics to their stalls. Muse had a diverse Apple II software catalog that mostly included audio tools and art programs, but the company’s main success was always in the games they produced.
Wolfenstein’s Later Popularity
John Romero who is the co-founder of id software, recalled in an email, the time when his company came to buy the Wolfenstein name.
“Around mid-April 1992, we decided that we could not come up with a better name than Wolfenstein,” he says. “We decided to figure out how to get the rights to the name. Jay Wilbur was our biz guy at the time, and he tracked the remaining assets of MUSE Software. […] It cost Jay $5,000 to buy the rights to the Wolfenstein name.”
The id software people, Romero and Carmack went to see Silas Warner give the speech at Kansas Fest, the same one that has been quoted in this article throughout.
“We drove from Dallas with our brand-new Toshiba color laptop in hand, with the newly-finished Wolfenstein 3D shareware on it,” recalls Romero. “We listened to Silas give a history talk about Muse and the great stuff he programmed.
“After his talk, we got to show him Wolfenstein 3D and he loved it. We had him sign a manual from the game which is displayed in id’s offices. We stayed up for hours at night, in the college dorm hallway, talking with him about Muse, the Apple II, and everything we could hope to hear him talk about. It was a great day.”
During that speech, Warner appreciated the love that his young admirers had for his work. “I got a call from some producers who wanted to build a new version of Castle Wolfenstein in 3D, using modern technology,” he said. “Actually, I have seen their product and it’s very darn impressive on an IBM.”
Warner also talked about why Muse failed. “It was sudden and quite unexpected,” he said. “Our sales manager, who managed our growth, left us. The man we hired came from the consumer electronics business. He was every bit as smart and every bit as enthusiastic as our sales manager had been.”
The new sales manager that the company hired fell severely ill and died very shortly afterward. In this fast-moving, forever changing environment of the gaming industry, this was the final nail in Muse’s coffin. But Owen has a different opinion on that event.
“He was not financially educated,” she says. “If Silas had been as good a businessperson as he was a computer scientist, life might have been very different for us.”
Later Years of Warner’s Life
In the mid-’90s, Silas Warner suffered a minor stroke that triggered a lot of other ailments in his body. He moved to San Francisco. Little did he know that he would meet his future wife there.
“We met in May 1995,” Owen says. “We were both born in 1949. We were approaching 46. I don’t think he ever expected to marry. He was obese and didn’t have much confidence in his looks, but I thought him beautiful. He asked me to marry him.”
Owen is not a heightened woman with slight obesity. The couple’s physical appearance was quite striking and was often subjected to cruelty from a lot of people. “Silas would support me in defending myself from insults, although with a sense of humor. We had what so many people lack: a spiritual, physical, and emotional home with love shared at its deepest and most comprehensive.”
Warner used to work consistently until he was laid off in 2002. After that, his health started to deteriorate quickly and unable to work, he and his wife moved out of San Francisco and spent his last years in Paradise and California’s central valley.
“He fought so hard,” recalls Owen. “My one regret is that Silas didn’t have the financial acumen to see to it that he was well-paid for his work and for his intellectual property. Neither of us was especially good at that, which I regret because it would have helped him at the end.”
Owen reminisced on her time with Silas and she considers that time to be the best years of her life. He was a considerate man who completely supported his wife when she was trying to lose weight and become a horse-riding instructor.
“He was a brilliant and brave man,” she says. “I’m very proud of all his achievements, including helping to start the video game industry. I just wish he got the recognition he deserves.”