History is full of bright and innovative people, “unsung heroes” whose clever creations over time have become overshadowed by the works of the people they inspired. As the computer game industry matured up through the ’80s and ’90s, most of the early pioneers and their work gradually faded into obscurity. People like Richard Garriott and John Romeo, now widely recognized, even outside the realm of computer games, both found inspiration in late “gentle giant” Silas Warner’s pioneering and extraordinary creations in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Warner enrolled at the University of Indiana, at the age of 17, in 1966 (he had enrolled two years earlier at another college but that didn’t work out). At university, he was introduced to the incredible world of computers. Warner, curious by nature and an exceptionally fast learner, soon became profound in everything and anything computer-related. Throughout his senior year, Warner devoted his time between studying and doing contract programming jobs. In 1970, after finishing his physics degree he stayed with the university for six more years. When the University of Illinois’ computer-assisted instruction system, PLATO IV was rolled out in 1972 the University of Indiana was one of the first institutions to have the $12.000 expensive real-time graphics terminals installed and connected to the systems mainframes. Warner went on to install and administrate the new system and soon became a major contributor to the PLATO community, developing games and educational content for thousands of people to use and enjoy.
Control Data Corporation, who built the million-dollar mainframe systems PLATO was operating on became aware of Warner’s contributions and in 1976 hired him to develop in-house training programs for Commercial Credit in Maryland, a finance company fully owned by Control Data.
While at Commercial Credit Warner met fellow programmer Ed Zaron, who was developing software to evaluate credit scores, and Jim Black an accountant in the billing department.
The trio would become some of the earliest adopters of Apple Computers’ newly released Apple II microcomputer. Warner purchased the 16K Apple II, his first personal computer, in early 1978, after he had visited Zaron who had acquired one himself. Warner, Zaron, and Black started meeting together after work, in Zaron’s living room programming games and software.
In late April of 1978, the friends took their first creations, recorded onto cassette tapes, to the Trenton Computer Festival, at Trenton State College in New Jersey. Here they debuted with two Apple II games. Zaron’s Tank Wars, a multiplayer arcade-style game similar to the Atari VCS title Combat, one of nine launch titles, that was included with the console when it was first introduced in September of 1977.
Ed Zaron’s first game, Tank Wars, one of two games he and Warner debuted with at the Trenton Computer Festival in 1978
Warner, influenced by his time developing games on PLATO and inspired by other maze-runner-like games for the system, led him to create a first-person perspective “3D” maze game, very likely the very first of its kind for any microcomputer.
While the maze concept had been employed as early as 1957, when Mouse in the Maze, was developed on MIT’s TX-0 Mainframe, the iconic Apple II Reference Manual, also known as The Red Book, gave the Maze game new unspoiled ground to start from in 1978. The reference manual not only described the inner workings of the machine but also included BASIC program examples. One of those programs was Dragon Maze a small 4kb program that would generate a random maze the player could explore. The program example was used and further developed upon by many of the early game pioneers. Robert Clardy’s Dungeon Campaign also from 1978, one of the earliest if not the earliest roleplaying game for the personal computer, used a heavily modified codebase from Dragon Maze. I’ve earlier written an article on Clardy and his first games.
The maze game concept was further conceptualized resulting in a myriad of different games in the early years of computer entertainment, Namco’s 1980 video arcade title Pac-Man probably being the best known.
Silas Warner’s first commercial game, simply titled Maze Game, a 16k first-person perspective “3D” maze-runner, very likely the first of its kind for any microcomputer. It was programmed in Steve Wozniak’s Integer BASIC and was an impressive show on the newly released Apple II in 1978
Warner was very likely influenced by the 3D wireframe perspective view that was seen on earlier PLATO games, games that ran on multi-million-dollar state-of-the-art hardware. Impressively Warner implemented it all as a 16Kb Integer BASIC program running on the 1Mhz Apple II, not only with 3D wireframes but with solid colored faces with “smooth” transitions when moving around.
Warner’s Maze Game generated a random maze, built upon a few variables, before the start of the game. The generation process took several minutes to complete but allowed the player to visually see the generation (just like with Dungeon Campaign). When the maze was complete you were dropped into it and given a first-person perspective “3D” view.
The game had no challenges to overcome other than to “escape” the maze. A map, compass, and footsteps showing where you had been, could help you (if chosen to in the beginning), rendering it quite easy to complete but nonetheless very enjoyable and very impressive.
Zaron and Warner’s presence at the Trenton Computer Festival soon drew in enthusiastic crowds and cassettes were selling like hotcakes. Their venture validated that there indeed was a market for personal computer software and that it might even be a viable business opportunity. In August of 1978, Zaron incorporated Micro Users Software Exchange using the trade name the MUSE Software Company, later simply MUSE Software (Zaron came up with MUSE name and Warner what the words stood for).
The success of Maze Game led Warner to expand upon it with added logic gameplay elements. Within a few months, his new game Escape was complete. Unlike Maze Game which could easily be completed, Escape didn’t show you the maze layout. Through your encounters with random persons, questions, and answers gave you hints to your whereabouts and which heading to take. You had to determine if a person was telling the truth or lying using logic. Random guards would appear out of nowhere requiring a pass to continue. Passes (good or bad) could be acquired along with maps of the maze (either flipped or not) from your encounters.
Escape ditched the awkward paddle controls Maze Game had used, allowing for a much better control scheme using the keyboard.
Silas Warner expanded on his Maze Game with added logic gameplay elements. The game was released as Escape in the summer of 1978. Jim Black’s girlfriend and artist, Valerie Rocco, was brought onto the team to do the cover art for the company’s products
Maze Game, Escape and Warner’s impressive use of a 3D perspective was a major inspiration when Richard Garriott decided to incorporate his 3D dungeons in his first commercial game, Akalabeth, a game that eventually led to one of gaming’s biggest franchises, the Ultima series.
In an interview with Creative Computing magazine in 1984, co-founder of Programma International, the biggest software publisher in the world, Dave Gordon described how he on a trip to Apple Computers in 1978 had decided to bring along Warner’s Escape. A decision that supposedly resulted in a 60 man-week loss in production – everybody was trying to map out and escape Warner’s mazes.
The trio continued to produce cassettes at night and traverse the East Coast selling games and software at computer trade-shows at weekends. In the long run, this wasn’t a viable solution and Zaron quit his secure job at Commercial Credit, in 1979, to fully focus on MUSE software and software development. Jim Black followed a few months later and a more cautious Warner stayed with Commercial Credit, not leaving until 1980.
Warner went on to create his most notable contribution to gaming, with his technological marvel and brilliantly designed Castle Wolfenstein in 1981. A Game that would heavily influence two young and upcoming star programmers, John Romeo and John Carmack. The two would in 1991 co-found id Software along with Tom Hall and Adrian Carmack. In 1992, id Software bought the Wolfenstein name… and the rest is pretty much history. Wolfenstein 3D swept the world spawning a whole new genre and solidified the Wolfenstein name as one of the most recognized in gaming.
Warner left MUSE Software a few weeks before its demise in 1985. He joined Sid Meyer and Microprose where he stayed until 1989 as a programmer and technological oracle.
Warner found true love (besides his love for computers and software) late in life. In 1995 he met Kari Ann Owen. The two got married a year later.
On the 26th of February 2004, Warner, sadly, passed away only 54 years old, after suffering from ill health for more than a decade.
While Warner being a somewhat socially quirky persona, people who experienced or worked with him fondly remember a gentle, helpful, and exceptionally gifted character. Warner had no interest in fame and fortune but his remarkable and pioneering contributions at the dawn of the personal computer age, should not fade into obscurity.