Where have all the furres gone?
A strange purring noise emits from your computer speaker that doesn’t seem to belong to any animal you know of. The log-in screen appears, and a friendly green dragon with a purple mane greets you. His name is Beekin, and accompanied by a lively splash of color, he invites you to enter the world of the “Furres”—”anthro, bipedal sapients”—and their “Dreams.”
Welcome to Furcadia.
Released in December 1996, Furcadia was developed by Dragon’s Eye Production after they finished their previous game, DragonSpires, where several of the game’s key concepts originated. Few multiplayer games of the 90s have survived into the present day, but Furcadia and its players are persistent and dedicated. In 2018, Furcadia is still up and running as the “The Second Dreaming” edition, thanks to donations and funding from a Kickstarter campaign. However, anyone who was there could tell you that its heyday was the early to mid 2000’s, when throngs of players logged in, chatted, and flooded the in-game real estate with their player maps.
But let’s take a step back. Furcadia is an online social game that hovers at the far reaches of the definition of “game,” similar to classic “multi user shared hallucations” (MUSHs). Unlike most of these, which were exclusively text-based, Furcadia had a graphical interface based around anthropomorphic animal avatars.
But it wasn’t just a visually-enhanced chatroom. Much like more recent games such as Minecraft and Second Life, players could create their own maps called “Dreams” and upload them as portals in ten permanent in-game locations. Not every Dream was intended for all ages, but Furcadia primarily advertised itself as being kid-friendly and promoted its tools as an easy way for teenagers to get into computer programming. You had the option to have clean roleplay in maps like “Nadia Green,” or attend a lewd high school in “Furabian Nights.” Furcadia was an ambitious social experiment that gave its players total creative freedom in shaping their virtual landscape and experiences.
Add in a real-life currency exchange for tokens called “dragonscales” and the opportunity to buy lifetime packages for $500, and suddenly Furcadia’s project seems all the more impressive. Premium avatars, called “digos” by users, allowed players to become all sorts of fantasy creatures via these subscription packages. Players could also buy customized portrait spaces for their characters, commission an artist, and upload it for the moderators to approve for in-game use. Furcadia wasn’t just a gimmicky social game for furries—it was a dedicated business.
My in-game character for four years was named “Kitsune-kun”—clearly the decision of a preteen version of myself who wanted to sound cool. Everyday, I would log-in, see if any of my friends were online, and send them a direct message—or “whisper”—asking if they wanted to hang out. From there, we might chat or go on a little adventure and check out whatever new Dreams were uploaded while we were away. There would be times where I’d get an unwanted message asking if I wanted to do sexual roleplay, and I would politely refuse. At the time, I was only vaguely familiar with the furry fandom and not completely aware of the norms and culture—but whatever “yiffing” was definitely didn’t seem like something I was interested in. Roleplay, both sexual and not, was a huge part of the Furcadia scene, but you weren’t forced to participate if you didn’t want to.
I recently connected with an old friend of mine—who I’ll call Fox—about his experiences with Furcadia. He spent a significant amount of his Furcadian tenure as a game moderator and had very sharp insight regarding the game’s successes and failures. When I asked what attracted him to Furcadia, and how it managed to keep players engaged, he said, “Furcadia was a really important part of my life. I learned a lot about myself and surprisingly a lot about the human condition, considering that the game was all about furries.” But he also noted that the ownership of the game was perceived by players as “good intentioned, [but] stubborn and cheap.”
The survival of a free games like Furcadia depends on two factors: financial sustainability and retaining player interest. Up until 2013, the Furcadia client was still running on the original specs from 1996. An inability to keep up with technological improvements and financial uncertainty meant that something needed to change. A large portion of Furcadia’s funding was provided by player purchases of exclusive avatars subscriptions and direct donations—anticipating the contemporary free-to-play (F2P) game model.
Like in modern F2P games, the majority of revenue came from players known as “whales,” who shelled out enormous piles of cash to claim limited edition pixel creatures, alongside vanity in-game items like Valentine’s roses and snowballs. At the same time, the developers weren’t as heavily investing in the game’s content, relying on player-created Dreams to retain interest.
But that changed in 2012, when the Furcadia team saw an opportunity to finally bring the game into the 21st century: a Kickstarter campaign to upgrade the ancient game client, called The Second Dreaming.
“The Second Dreaming was divisive,” Fox told me. “Questionably successful, but divisive. Parts of the mythical 32-bit update were a [Kickstarter] initial goal at $55,000, with numerous arbitrary [tier] additions along the way, the promise of a web-based client, and contributor-only avatars. The lines were drawn and suddenly the income being paid into the game through digos and sponsors wasn’t enough to improve it, only sustain.”
However, even The Second Dreaming couldn’t revive the flagging world of Furcadia. While the Kickstarter campaign generated needed funds, upgrading an almost decade-old game would require back-breaking labor and deciphering a tangled web of ancient code. For some players, the ask of roughly $60,000 seemed unreasonable, considering that Furcadia was conceived of as free-to-play. However, despite this backlash, the community ultimately donated $106,835 by the end of the campaign. It was die-hard fans doing the lion’s share of financial backing for the promise of exclusive goodies—they eventually received them between 2012 and 2014.
Since then, Furcadia has launched and subsequently pulled an iOS app as well as experimented with a web client. But neither of these initiatives managed to stem the bleed of players. According to Fox, the task of keeping the app updated was just too great for Furcadia’s small team.
“A little research shows that there may be approximately 600 players online, but this number is inflated by non-playable bots and players who may be running multiple characters at once,” Fox said. “This could put the active player base under 300 or even less, compared to its former average of 2,000—which could be adjusted to about 1,000 with the same considerations—prior to the Kickstarter campaign.”
Needless to say, Furcadia is no Fortnite. It was—and always has been—intended for a subculture of an already niche, computer-savvy audience. Even as furry culture becomes more mainstream than ever online, Furcadia seems like a relic of a forgotten era.
I’m reminded of the 1997 Paula Cole song, “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” and her nostalgic longing for another time. Where have all the Furres gone? Let’s be honest, probably Twitter. The social spheres furries and other geeks inhabit are becoming more and more mainstream as we approach The Internet Singularity, so perhaps it was only inevitable that a client-based social game would fall out of fashion. On an increasingly centralized internet that demands that we present our “real” self across every platform we use, the game almost seems quaint. But back when the web was still new and mysterious, Furcadia was one of the few safe spaces I and many others had to explore our identities.
And so, despite its shortcomings, Furcadia proved itself to be a valuable catalyst for young creative minds in its heyday—a place where you truly could, as the game’s tagline says, let your imagination soar.