The Game Archaeologist: Furcadia
Let’s face it: There isn’t really a huge pool of MMORPGs from the 1990s to explore in this column. By now I have done most of them, including some of the more obscure titles. Yet there has always been this one game that I have shied away from covering, even though it (a) was an actual MMO from the ’90s and (b) is still operating even today. And that game is, of course, Furcadia.
So why my reluctance? To be honest, I suppose it was my reluctance to tackle anything in the “furry” fandom without knowing how to handle it. I don’t quite get the fascination with wanting to pretend to be an animal, and some of the expressions that I’ve seen in the news and online from this community have made me uncomfortable. Thus I kept away because I was worried that a piece that I wrote on Furcadia would devolve into a nonstop stream of jokes to cover that personal disquiet.
But I’ve tiptoed around this MMO long enough, and I have come to realize that there is virtue in earnestly trying to understand a subculture that is outside of my bubble, even if I don’t end up appreciating or liking it. Casting off preconceptions and simple snark, let us take a look at this unique title and see what it has to offer for the larger genre.
From the mind of a cat
The beginnings of Furcadia can be traced all the way back to 1985, when solo game designer named David Shapiro claimed to have a “grandiose vision” of a multiplayer version of the RPG he was making. He realized that the technology wasn’t quite there yet to make this idea a reality, but the thought never left his mind.
A year later, he came to work for Origin Systems as a developer on the Ultima franchise. Shaprio, who goes by the nickname of “Dr. Cat,” helped to design Ultima V and VI during his tenure. In fact, his Dr. Cat persona appeared in both games as characters.
After five years with the studio, Shapiro left to work on other projects. The first of these was 1994’s DragonSpires, a graphical MUD that emphasized socializing over combat (which was a rarity with such games). It seems like that MMO should deserve its own column some day for its historical precedent, but for now it should suffice to say that it was impressive to see this game break ground on graphical MMORPGs years before Ultima Online would break it wide open.
In a weird twist, DragonSpires attracted the attention of Shapiro’s former studio, Origin, which reached out to talk about acquiring the game when the company saw the prototype. However, Origin decided to go a different direction when the higher-ups realized that there was someone already working in-house on Ultima Online.
DragonSpires led into the development of a larger spiritual successor. Furcadia was made on a shoestring budget — reportedly $50,000, Shapiro’s total life savings — in just one year while its two devs (Dr. Cat and his Origin co-worker Talzhemir) worked other jobs. It gained attention from the player community for its social focus, player-created content, and (by 1999) its business model which relied mostly on microtransactions instead of a subscription.
“When Windows 95 came out, I decided to port the DragonSpires engine from DOS to Windows, as it was finally good enough to support gaming,” Shapiro said. “Talzhemir said ‘Hey, why don’t we do the talking animal game?’ We’d both done years of ‘knights bashing each other with swords’ games like Ultima and others. I said ‘OK, sure.’ A year later, we had Furcadia.”
Inspiration for the game came from a variety of sources, according to Shapiro: “Me and my partner Talzhemir were inspired by text MUDs on the internet, early online RPGs on PLATO, other pioneering online networks, Aesop’s Fables, and a lot of other sources.”
Shapiro was unabashed in his love of animals and plushies, and defended the furry community throughout his career. “Just like there’s some people that think ‘Star Trek fans are nerdy losers who live in their mom’s basement,’ there are people that look down on ‘furry fans,'” he said in a 2013 Reddit AMA. “Among those who know ‘furry fandom’ exists, anyway. But I think they’re a minority. Animal characters are widely used and loved in Disney movies, Bugs Bunny cartoons, TV commercials, cartoon shows, sports team mascots, greeting cards, really throughout our culture.”
To get Furcadia out the door on time, Shapiro advertised for volunteer builders on UseNet, back when people know what UseNet was (look it up, kids!). The MMO launched in December 1996, sporting whopping 256-color VGA graphics, an isometric look, and animals as far as the eye could see (or the screen could display).
Dreams come true
Instead of comparing Furcadia to most modern MMORPGs — theme parks or sandboxes — that have a combat-centric approach, it’s best to picture the game as a Second Life-style virtual world. “Second Life meets The Sims meets the collective weirdness of Japan” is how I’d describe it from where I’m sitting.
One thing that surprised me while researching this article is how devoted and mature this community presents itself. The studio Furcadia claims that 60% of its playerbase is female, which speaks to its welcoming environment and broad appeal. And what studio posts a detailed information letter to parents giving them advice on how to help safeguard their kids in the game?
Players create an avatar best suited to their identity, slipping into the skin (or fur or feathers) of one of 11 creature types and one of three genders. They then go off to create their own “dream:” a pocket world in which they can theme as they desire and then invite others to explore. If you are into modding, then Furcadia is your — pun intended — dream world come true.
Since the dreams didn’t have to conform to any set parameters, you never knew what to expect. According to the official wiki, Furcadia’s dreams could “range from pirates on the high aeas, to furres in spaceships, to Elizabethan gardens, to medieval fantasy.”
There is a lot of potential customization with both avatars and dreams, as players have the ability to tweak what is already there or upload their own art, animation, scripting, and even music. Dreams can even run their own multiplayer games, creating a Russian nesting egg situation.
Furcadia’s community often boasts of how much it fostered and taught players computer programming and graphic design, with some of its own playerbase returning the favor by developing content and updates for the game and even becoming developers.
It’s within Furcadia’s dreams that players engage in the central activity of the game: roleplaying. Players categorize their scenarios with the type of creatures used (animals with four legs, human, or anthropomorphic animals) and the flavor of RP (social, persona RP, or strict RP). And because I know what you’re thinking, it’s not a free-for-all Roman gladiator orgy. Furcadia cordons off adult-only areas from the general public, keeping kids in safer waters while giving the older crowd a choice what they want to see and experience.
The social glue that holds the game together is facilitated by a player volunteer organization called the Beekins. These volunteers do everything from handle moderation to provide help to struggling players to run in-game events. It’s a necessary step to take for a studio that only has a handful of employees and contractors.
One for the record books
Despite being vastly overshadowed by the massive crowd that came later, Furcadia’s faithful ensured the continued development of the game. During the first half-decade, the number of players tripled each year as word of the game spread. In 2008, 12 years into the game’s operation, Furcadia was still drawing 60,000 players on a regular basis (last year it was numbering around 15,000). That seems pretty solid for such an old title.
So why has it stuck around this long? Shapiro explained Furcadia’s longevity: “One reason we’ve always been around and always will be is that we’re experts at keeping costs low. In 1996, when even the earliest MMORPGs were costing 1-2 million or more to make, we made one on $50,000 and two people. We worked outside jobs for a few years until we started charging for items in Furcadia to make a living from it. We’ve always kept our staff small and used a ton of volunteer helpers for in-game help and such.”
In fact, last year saw the biggest update to the game since launch called “Second Dreaming.” The update began as a Kickstarter campaign which netted $106,835 in 2012 and subsequently collected $162,000 more from fans to finish it up. Second Dreaming took four years to make and introduced 32-bit world-building tools, safer account security, and a massive overhaul to the game engine. The work and scope was pretty impressive for such an old game, but it proved to be divisive within the community anyway.
MMO game designer Raph Koster praised the game on its 10th anniversary, saying, “[Furcadia] still flies under the radar of most of the MMORPG community, in part because the hardcore gamers aren’t interested in yiffing, and in part because it’s like so many other of the niche MMOs: isometric, low-end graphics, and far deeper design than most want to give it credit for.”
Not very long ago, Furcadia came out with a mobile client, although it would eventually be discontinued and abandoned. That seems like a pity considering how many MMOs these days are taking a long, hard look at the mobile space.
In 2006, the game became the first MMO to cross the 10-year mark of continuous play. By 2016, Furcadia made the Guinness World Records by becoming the “Longest-Running Social MMORPG” on the market. It keeps that streak alive today, having crossed into its 21st year of operation in 2017.
I’ll admit, I’m glad I was wrong on this one. The furry scene might not be for me, but I found looking at the history, design, and legacy of Furcadia to be absolutely fascinating. It’s in many ways the first crowdsourced graphical MMORPG that’s managed to survive for over two decades through its devoted community, a democratic design, and a vision that went in a different direction without pause or concern.