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Purble Place: the mystery behind the forgotten video game favorite of generation Z

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A screenshot of the work in progress of the Comfy Cakes section of Purble Place.

If you had a PC in the 2010s, you probably owned a copy of Purble Place. The flashy kids’ game came with every copy of Windows Vista and 7. It was a simple package of three titles: Purble Pairs was a basic tile memory game; Purble Shop had the player design a mysterious character using logic and deduction; and in the latest Comfy Cakes game, kids played online cooking for Purble Chef while juggling orders on a conveyor belt. And for many online teens, the legacy of these games easily matches that of Minesweeper and Solitaire, the most venerable PC games of the past.

However, no one knows who did it. Curious players noticed a simple credit to Oberon Games in the game’s help menu, but that’s about it. Despite being installed on hundreds of millions of computers around the world, the game’s actual creators have lived in obscurity for two decades.

But Purble Place’s legacy endures, amassing a cult following fueled by memes, imitation games, and more than 50 million views on Tik Tok and YouTube, a fan base that Purble Place’s creators didn’t even know existed until recently.

Most people I’ve spoken to credit Jane Jensen for Purble Place’s existence: she is its lead developer. But she hasn’t been waiting in the wings, eager to take credit. “Honestly, I had to Google some images to remind myself,” she says, “I’ve made a lot of games.” Today, Jane writes romance novels and lives in Washington state with her husband, Robert Holmes, the man responsible for the Purble Place audio, and her blind bulldog, Oberon. Decades earlier, she and Robert worked for Sierra Entertainment, helping create PC games like King’s Quest and Jensen’s own creation, the Gabriel Knight series.

Jensen helped form Oberon during what Robert calls the “Wild West” casual gaming days. Microsoft had hired the developer to create the Xbox Live Arcade launch titles, but they were actually a startup. “We had parties at my house to find people during recruitment,” says Jessica Tams, producer of Oberon and one of its first members. “I hired people I knew and from Craigslist.” Scrappy is one word to describe it. If you had called his office, you would have heard the Badger Badger Badger song down the line.

After incubating in the spare rooms of its founders, Oberon jumped from one workspace to another. The one they occupied during the development of Purbles had low ceilings and stacked chairs, and team member Scott Bilas remembers cleaning dirt off the phones that came with the office.

Purble people… Oberon Media employees in 2005. Photo: Provided by Jane Jensen.

In 2005, Vista was still in development and Microsoft hired Oberon to remake its classic game suite for the new operating system, with an original children’s game added to the mix. They were less than a year old and had strict instructions not to use third-party game engines for security reasons. Looking to buy someone’s engine outright, Oberon found three college graduates: Brendan Walker, Dan Thompson and Tam Armstrong. The trio’s own studio had recently closed, so naturally they accepted Oberon’s offer to bring them and their “Flat Engine” on board.

These new developers, along with Jane Jensen and producer Cara Ely, became the core development team for Purble Place. According to Jensen, Microsoft wanted “the equivalent of Solitaire for young children; something you can play over and over again.”

Initial design prototype for Purble Place. Photography: Oberon/Microsoft

But Microsoft was not just a customer. “There were all these ominous warnings about what Vista would be like on millions of computers around the world,” Jensen says, “and if our games brick a computer or allow a security breach, it could have dire consequences.”

Paradoxically, the Vista games were seen as a small project for this makeshift team. For many, the Xbox project was the bigger fish, and the Vista games never gave Oberon any significant attention or money. No wonder, then, that they outsourced it to a trio of college graduates.

“Purble Place was one of the first games I worked on in the gaming industry,” Brendan Walker tells me. “We were working in a back room that looked like a warehouse. Originally it was just Tam and I there. In the end we brought together about 10 people.”

A prototype version of the Purble Place Concentration section. Photography: Oberon/Microsoft

This backroom of the development often became noisy, according to Walker, who says the front office shut the door on them more than once.

Some of this fuss seemed to be caused by the game itself. “The Purble Chef was the butt of a lot of jokes,” Walker says. “What was his motivation? Why were we forced to produce cakes? Many of us find the Comfy Cakes minigame quite tedious once you get the hang of it. “We joked that it was actually a cake-making simulator with child labor.”

The name of the game also caused problems. No one quite remembers where “purble” comes from, but Ely attributes it to the fact that “game names tend to work well if there’s alliteration, and purble is… a fun thing to say.” Internal emails calling it “Purple Place” were apparently rife.

The game’s optimistic 2000s aesthetic, now retrospectively called Frutiger Aero, passed through many hands and many iterations. The developer documents record a rudimentary art style much stranger than what we know today.

Purble Place concept art. Photography: Oberon/Microsoft

“For many years I felt embarrassed by that game,” says Heather Ivy, an Oberon artist who was briefly involved with Purble Place. “I remember trying to make the characters’ face pieces look less weird.” Ivy, who also created the Solitaire decks and Vista Chess pieces, added: “I just didn’t like the art style of the glitter faces…the pictures on Wikipedia don’t change my opinion.”

Meanwhile, the Oberon team leaders were at the mercy of Microsoft and its demanding demands for an “in-box” game. Scott Bilas, who juggled multiple roles on Oberon, says it’s “unlike any development work he’s done before or since.” Anyone who came in, Bilas tells me, had to meet all of Microsoft’s language, security, policy, and accessibility requirements. This was made worse by the fact that they had to do everything through a third-party producer, something Bilas called “keyhole debugging.”

Bilas remembers some of those in-box blues: an artist who had to prove the originality of his art to Microsoft; an engineer forced to test Solitaire’s new voice recognition by saying the same phrases over and over again; arguments over the word “sucks” being used in a comment in the source code before being sheepishly removed.

A screenshot of the work in progress of the Comfy Cakes section of Purble Place. Photography: Oberon/Microsoft

The formalities also extended to the design. The tight deadline forced the removal of a Comfy Cakes rotation mechanic (a “very controversial” move, according to Ely). And for the experienced Jensen, giving weekly PowerPoint presentations in a suit at Microsoft headquarters was “definitely more businesslike than usual.”

There were many other hands involved in Purble Place, but memories of old work projects fade quickly. Names are forgotten and old email addresses are abandoned. Much of the team joined gaming giants like Unity, Bungie, and Atari. But Purble’s legacy lives on. In a market filled with casual games for kids, the Purble fandom longs for when games weren’t the slick money printers they are today, but rather simple (and slightly strange) distractions in our computer rooms.

For most people who worked at Purble Place, it’s barely a footnote in their careers, a simple contract project undertaken under challenging circumstances. But, ironically, it’s also probably the most overplayed thing any of them will ever do. “I hadn’t really thought about how much exposure the games would get,” Jensen says. “But that’s the wonderful thing: Those games were watched by millions of people.”

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