The story of the man who made Wolfenstein

Until recently, Kari Ann Owen ran a therapeutic horse ranch in Montana. Now she focuses on writing and political activism and is no longer interested in video games. But she takes her late husband’s legacy very seriously. “He was a genius,” she says of Silas Warner. “And he never got the credit or rewards he got.”

Silas Warner’s most notable contribution to gaming was the creation of Castle Wolfenstein in 1981, which was the first game to include digitized language and was an early example of both stealth games and World War II shooters. Three years later, he published a follow-up, Beyond Castle Wolfenstein.

Warner died in 2004 at the age of 54. He has had an illness for more than a decade.

Silas Warner and Kari Ann Owen on their wedding day, March 23, 1996. Photo courtesy of Kari Ann Owen

Warner was one of the first game design pioneers. But unlike those who have found fame and fortune through their work, he remains a somewhat dark figure.

In part, he preferred it that way. Warner was traded as Muse software during his greatest successes. He was not a businessman and the company went bankrupt in 1987. His estate, including the Wolfenstein name, was taken over by a broker.

In 1992, id Software bought the Wolfenstein name from the broker for $ 5,000. Two of the company’s co-founders, John Carmack and John Romero, were both fans of the original games and wanted the name for their new World War II shooter, Wolfenstein 3D.

This game has been a driving force for the growing popularity of first person shooters that continues to this day. Carmack and Romero created Doom and made a fortune.

Bethesda Softworks bought id Software in 2009, acquiring the rights to Wolfenstein. The company has published four Wolfenstein games since 2014, including this year’s Wolfenstein: Youngblood. Warner’s creation is one of the most famous names in gaming today.

After the breakdown of Muse, Warner worked for various companies, including MicroProse and Virgin Interactive. Those who remember working with Warner, including Firaxis founder Sid Meier and famous gaming musician Tommy Tallarico, said that he was sometimes seen as a little star by staff who admired his games. 6-foot-9 and over 300 pounds added to the feeling that he was a towering figure. But many who knew him said he was socially awkward and often reacted with confusion to the praise of his games.

He wasn’t interested in celebrities, just in computers. In these companies, he was primarily a programmer and technical problem solver, not a game developer.

Owen says her time with Warner was the happiest of her life. Photo courtesy of Kari Ann Owen

At some point Warner came out of the game and used his talent for computers in various professions. He spoke fluent German, liked to compose sacred music and worked tirelessly for local public transport. But his life was not easy. Once he was on the verge of homelessness and lived in cheap motel rooms. He married late in life – a happy partnership – but spent his last years in poor health.

“He had insulin-dependent diabetes combined with kidney disease, arthritis and high blood pressure,” says Owen. “It’s quite a combination. Silas had to focus on survival and its medical needs. It was just genetics and bad luck. But Silas and I were very determined people.”

“An outstanding intellect”

Owen is on the phone from her ranch and does not praise Warner as she tells his life story. “He had beauty, sensitivity, morals and a high level of intellect,” she says. “Silas’ great character was shaped by his mother who almost gave her life for him.”

Warner spent his first seven years in Chicago. Owen says Warner’s father, a wealthy industrialist, was violent and abusive towards his young son and boy’s mother. “He threw Silas against a wall,” she says. “Later, Sila’s mother, Ann, drove with her son on a freeway to Chicago. She stopped and found that the brake pads were cut off.”

Ann and Silas fled and moved to Indiana. She tried to raise the boy alone, but found the time to train as a teacher. “It was dedicated to him,” says Owen. “She supported him in every way, but granted him his independence. He spent a lot of time alone while she was working. He used this time to read and learn about the things that interested him, especially science and history. “

Warner attended a laboratory school where his intellectual skills were recognized and encouraged. “They were geared towards talented and talented children,” says Owen. “There a teacher worked very closely with Silas, who was far ahead academically. Unfortunately, his social skills weren’t far ahead. That is why he needed help in many areas. But he had a wonderful teacher who helped him and prepared him for his career. “

At school, Warner’s unusually large height and idiosyncratic personality made him a brand for bullies. At some point, says Owen, “Silas had had enough” and “looked after a bully” to take him out.

On a Warner memorial page, an old friend remembers Ann and her son. “I can’t verify it, but Ann said he got a perfect score for his SATs. She was a little disappointed that Silas, who was so incredibly talented, wasted his life as a game programmer. It all seemed a little superficial, one calm and humble woman who grew up as a Quaker, she wanted to take him to an academic career. “

He was fascinated by computers

Warner attended Indiana University, where he discovered extreme alcohol intolerance. “It was the absolute disintegrator for him,” says Owen. “He never drank anything again.”

Owen and Warner would not meet for another 20 years. But at the time – that was in the late 1960s – Owen attended the University of California at Berkeley. She also turned away from alcohol after some bad experiences. “We both had undiagnosed blood sugar disorders that were eventually diagnosed,” she says. “When we got married, our home was non-alcoholic and our friends were very happy with the great parties we had without alcohol being served.”

Fellow student Ron Fields, who writes on the memorial page, remembers Warner. Â € œSilas occupied the dorm next to me. He was a unique and enigmatic person. Silas was intellectually leaping beyond his peers. While most people in the dorm were concerned with the pursuit of free love and our design status, Silas usually eliminated the most mundane disturbances by entering the campus with his long black trench coat and reading advanced chemistry and physics textbooks. “

Warner earned a degree in physics; Back then, computer science was not taught at Indiana University. But he knew that he would work with computers.

computer pioneer

Warner spent his time at Indiana University between studying, reporting on the school’s radio station and working part-time as a computer programmer.

According to computer historian Jimmy Maher from The Digital Antiquarian, Warner worked on developing accident analysis software on an IBM mainframe. After completing his studies, he found work at the university and installed a new system called PLATO. This was an early educational computer system that led students toward computer programming.

Warner created a PLATO user manual and dealt with creating and playing rudimentary games. He helped build Empire, which is sometimes referred to as the first multiplayer shooter game. The players controlled Star Trek-style spaceships and typed commands to change direction and shoot. Warner then built his own shooter called Conquest and a multiplayer flight simulation called Air Race.

The Apple II computer has significantly influenced Silas Warner’s life. Photo: Jaap Arriens / NurPhoto / Getty Images

When Warner spoke at the KansasFest in 1992, he remembered working on PLATO. “It was a giant mainframe connected to a thousand terminals across the country,” he said. “The big advantage of these terminals was that they all had identical screen formats and identical commands. They were all graphics terminals, so you could write some really nice games on the subject. “

In 1976, Warner was hired by a major Baltimore insurance company called Commercial Credit, where he developed training-based computer games that the company’s agents used to perform certain customer interactions. He wrote one called Sales Call Simulator.

In his spare time, he made a game called Robot Wars and played it with some new friends who also worked with computers. The players gave their robot commands at the beginning of each game and then watched the fights play out.

The rise and fall of the muse

Ed Zaron also worked for Commercial Credit, a programming software that evaluates credit points. He went on to found Muse with Warner. In an interview with Creative Computing in 1984, Zaron talked about how he and Warner became friends.

“He was just a friend of mine and I told him I was going to buy an Apple computer that night and how excited I was about it,” said Zaron. “But I really didn’t know him very well. After work, I went to the computer store. I took the computer home and was just taking it out of the box when the doorbell rang.

“It was Silas!” Continued Zaron. “I barely knew him and he just went in to see my computer. Well, Silas is the type who can stroke a manual over his chest and fully understand it. (…) So he sat down in front of my computer and started writing programs. I just sat there and watched. “

When Zaron mentioned that he would go to a party, Warner continued programming. “When I got home around 1am, Silas was still there,” said Zaron. “There were a few little games running on the computer. One of them, which he called The Apple Tree, and to play it you had to catch apples that fell from a tree. “

The next day Warner bought his own Apple II. “It was # 234,” Warner recalled in his conversation about KansasFest. “It was $ 1,399, but it was a really big machine. I met with Ed Zaron and Jim Black, the accountant of the department that sent the bills. These two people and I met at night and started producing cassettes. “

The three friends made games and sold them at computer shows along the east coast.

“We recorded tapes all night after working all day,” Warner recalls. “We went to computer fairs with a box of tapes in a truck and sold Tank Wars and labyrinth games at incredible speed. We started to realize that this software business really had something to offer. “

They decided to devote themselves entirely to software development and to attract enthusiastic visitors to their stands again and again. Muse has developed all types of Apple II software, including audio tools and graphics programs. But it was the games that had the greatest success.

Warner’s 3D Maze game Escape was a huge success. It was so popular that the game is said to have affected Apple’s productivity because of the many people who played it. Ultima creator Richard Garriott, who also started a career as a game programmer, said Escape was an important inspiration that “changed my life.”

Thanks to the success of Escape and Ed Zaron’s Tank Wars, the Muse team expanded into larger offices and opened an adjacent retail store selling computers and software. This helped the company buy new equipment at retail prices and see directly how its games were received by customers.

“We were able to place our products in the Muse Computer Center and see how they were and how they would play,” said Warner. “We also ordered our competitors’ software. not just the store in stock, but to see what they were doing. So we had a good grip on the competition. “

“We put everything in there”

As the emerging home computer market expanded, Muse was always ready to take advantage of it. When the Apple II drive came out, the company created its own assembler to simplify the production line. Muse also started developing games for the Atari 2600 and Commodore 64. The company made software. In 1983, more than $ 6 million was turned over annually (about $ 16 million in 2019).

One evening Warner visited a 7-11 and played the arcade hit Robotron 2084, which was written by Eugene Jarvis. “It was such a cliché … robots and science fiction gimmicks and all the insignia of that era,” Warner said with characteristic dullness.

“I was wondering what else you could do with it. And then I saw (Navalone World War II film from 1961) and saw what I could do with it. About six months later, Wolfenstein Castle appeared. “

It was the company’s biggest project. “We put everything in there,” said Warner, referring to the memory of the Muse’s programming knowledge and her suite of software tools. “We worked with a professional recording studio. We went down there one fine day and I spent several hours at the microphone and said, “Warning!”

Those with memories of Wolfenstein Castle often remember the scary, angry voice that came out of the game when they tried to defeat the Nazi enemies.

“I really played and played this game a ton,” recalls Seth Mendelsohn, who later worked with Warner at Virgin Interactive. “It has proven itself as the predecessor to Doom and Quake. I remember digitized speech. It was way ahead of its time. It made the game more exciting. It was a great game. “

Sid Meier also remembers how he played Castle Wolfenstein. “It wasn’t like the kind of (military) simulation games we made (at MicroProse), but we understood the value as a technological part. When we looked at Wolfenstein, we saw a game with a smooth frame rate and a clever pseudo 3D design. It has intense gameplay, ”he says.

“It was the exploration of an interesting new direction that led to all shooters today,” added Meier. “Back then it felt like a window into the future, a few years later like SimCity. It was something new and a lot of people liked to play. “

After starting Wolfenstein 3D from id, Warner said in 1992: “This game has supported our company until it collapsed. Now it supports a new generation of people. “

Wolfenstein’s later popularity

John Romero remembers in an email how it came to buy the Wolfenstein name.

“In mid-April 1992 we decided that we couldn’t come up with a better name than Wolfenstein,” he tells Polygon. “We decided to find out how we can get the rights to the name. Jay Wilbur was our business partner at the time and he was tracking the remaining assets of MUSE Software. (…) The purchase of the Wolfenstein name rights cost Jay $ 5,000. “

Romero, Carmack, and other people from id Software visited Warner to deliver a speech at the KansasFest (the same one cited in this article).

“We drove from Dallas with our brand new Toshiba laptop, which contains the newly processed Wolfenstein 3D shareware,” recalls Romero. “We listened to Silas give a story talk about Muse and the great things he programmed.

Warner’s work has inspired Wolfenstein 3D. Image: id software / Apogee software

“After his lecture we were able to show him Wolfenstein 3D and he loved it. We had him sign a game manual that will be displayed in id’s offices. We stayed in the hall of the dormitory for hours at night and talked to him about Muse, the Apple II and everything we could hope to hear him speak about. It was a great day.”

During the KansasFest speech, Warner paid tribute to his young admirers. “I got a call from some producers who wanted to build a new version of Castle Wolfenstein in 3D using modern technology,” he said. “I actually saw your product and it is very impressive for an IBM.”

Warner also spoke of Muses death. “It was suddenly and unexpectedly,” he said. “Our sales manager, who controlled our growth, left us. The man we hired came from consumer electronics. He was just as smart and as enthusiastic as our sales manager. “

The new sales manager fell ill and died shortly afterwards. In the fast paced environment of the early gaming industry, this turned out to be the end for Muse. “We had no sales. None at all. And developing a product isn’t very good if you don’t have anything that supports everything, ”said Warner. The company filed for bankruptcy: “Close the doors, lock them, the party is over.”

Kari Ann Owen has a slightly different memory. “He wasn’t trained financially,” she says. “If Silas had been as good a businessman as a computer scientist, life might have been different for us.”

MicroProse and Virgin

After Muse, Warner returned to life as an employee. He started working at MicroProse, where he met Sid Meier. “Sid was like a mentor to him,” says Owen.

“We knew about Silas because of Wolfenstein, and he was also in Baltimore, and the games business was a small world at the time,” Meier recalls. “He came to interview (then company president) Bill Stealey. They had a conversation. I spoke to Bill afterwards and he said,” You know, I’m not sure he’s the right one “Silas came back a day or two later and said,” Okay, I’ve decided to take the job. “”

Warner was working on switching different games to the different platforms that were emerging at the time. “He would buy a new computer like an Atari ST or a Commodore Amiga and become an expert almost overnight,” says Meier.

“Like many of us computer types at that time, he worked rather independently,” says Meier. “He wasn’t super sociable. He was in the technology nerd camp: introverted, focused on his work and on his computers. But when I talked to him about something that interested him, usually technology, he was knowledgeable and interesting.

“If he had done something cool, he would have shown it to you very casually, and we would all be impressed. And that made him happy because he loved what he did. He was a good guy. But I don’t think it did him it was important to be a game designer. I think he saw them mainly as technical challenges. “

Railroad Tycoon was one of the favorite games by Silas Warner. He admired Sid Meier very much. Image: MPS Labs / MicroProse

As the PC began to dominate, demand for Warner’s technical skills slowed. In the early 1990s, he switched to Virgin Interactive. There, someone had to work on CD-ROM technology and find out video compression and full-motion video.

Stephen Clarke-Wilson worked with Warner at Virgin as an executive producer of games like The Terminator, Cool Spot and The 7th Guest. “As a programmer, Silas did the job,” says Clarke-Wilson. “He could also speak the language of the designers, which was very important. At that time, the concept of a design department was a new thing. “

“I remember most of all that he used two monitors and two keyboards on top of each other,” says Mendelsohn, who was working for Virgin at the time. “He would type with one hand on a keyboard and one hand on the other. I was amazed and asked him about it. He just said that that’s how he works. “

Mendelsohn also asked Warner if he was ever planning to make another Wolfenstein game. “He looked surprised. He didn’t think anyone cared anymore. He was very humble and didn’t talk much about the old days. “

Mendelsohn sometimes came to the office on weekends. Most of the time he found Warner on his computer. “He came in after hours to play (Sid Meiers) Railroad Tycoon. He loved this game.”

Later years

In the mid-1990s, Warner had a mild stroke and was diagnosed with low blood sugar and various other complaints. He moved to San Francisco and took on various programming jobs. He also met Kari Ann Owen.

“We met in May 1995,” she says. “We were both born in 1949. We were approaching 46. I don’t think he ever expected to get married. He was obese and didn’t have much faith in his looks, but I found him beautiful. He asked me to be him to marry. “

Owen is a small woman and was also obese at the time. The physical appearance of the happy couple meant that they made a striking figure. She remembers the cruelty of strangers. “Silas would help me defend myself against insults, albeit with a sense of humor. We had what so many people lack: a spiritual, physical, and emotional home where love is shared most deeply and fully. “

“He was a brilliant and brave man”

Despite kidney dialysis, Warner continued to work until his discharge in 2002. After that, he and Owen moved out of San Francisco because his health deteriorated and he was unable to work. He spent his final years in paradise and then in Chico in the Central Valley of California.

“He fought so hard,” Owen recalls. “I just regret that Silas didn’t have the financial acumen to make sure that he was well paid for his work and intellectual property. Neither of us was particularly good at what I regret because it would have helped him in the end. “She said they discussed trying to claim the Wolfenstein name, but were advised that the trial would be too costly.

Owen says that her time with Silas Warner was the best years of her life. He supported her as she struggled to lose weight and become a riding instructor. He helped her get her first horse and her therapeutic teaching certificate.

“He was a brilliant and brave man,” she says. “I am very proud of all of his successes, including support in launching the video game industry. I just wish he had the recognition he deserves.”

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