Final Fantasy 14 Mod Bans Trigger Debate About Toxicity In Competitive MMO Culture

Final Fantasy 14 players are being punished for using what some consider to be harmless mods. What happens from here may help determine the future of the MMO.

Final Fantasy
Photo: Square Enix

There are many good reasons to play Final Fantasy 14, but the friendly and productive relationship between the game’s community and its developers has long been one of the MMO’s biggest selling points. However, that relationship has been tested in recent days thanks to a crackdown on Final Fantasy 14‘s modding scene that has some wondering if the game’s developers are being a little too controlling.

If you’ve never played Final Fantasy 14 or another MMO, the idea of modding the game probably sounds a bit odd. After all, mods are typically used to improve a single-player game’s visuals, add new content to an existing title, or simply reimagine an experience. How would you modify an ongoing massively multiplayer online game, and why would you want to in the first place?

Well, the vast majority of popular MMO mods are designed to allow players to access additional information or simply make common actions more convenient. For instance, you might download a mod to help you see how much damage your character is doing in a raid or one that allows you to sell all of your junk items to a vendor automatically. Such mods are particularly popular with older MMOs like World of Warcraft Classic, but even more modern MMO games typically support a variety of basic quality-of-life add-ons. They’re especially popular among high-level players who prefer to be able to easily access detailed “log” information during difficult raids and other challenging group content.

Technically, mods are not allowed in Final Fantasy 14, though Square Enix’s policy on the matter has allowed for a few grey areas. For instance, Square Enix has previously said that they’re not necessarily opposed to players using mods that are purely cosmetic (such as shading tools for HUD elements), though they would prefer it if players do not use mods at all. Furthermore, they have said that they’re certainly against mods that offer any kind of potential gameplay advantage over those who are not using mods. While that obviously includes tools that help you cheat in FF 14, that policy also affects mods that add things like a “damage counter” to your screen. Basically, the developers would seemingly prefer that players don’t try to add elements to the game that those who only use official in-game tools wouldn’t also be able to access.

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While that’s the official policy regarding FF 14 mods, the unofficial policy has historically veered closer to “keep it to yourself.” Basically, many FF 14 players have been using technically “illegal” mods for quite some time without repercussion. The popular belief is that you’re probably fine to use mods so long as you don’t make a big deal out of it. For a while, most players assumed that was pretty much the end of the matter.

However, that theory was challenged recently when Final Fantasy 14 director Naoki Yoshida published an extensive blog post in which he said, among other things, that “the use of third-party tools is strictly prohibited” and that “players who are determined to be using third-party tools will have their accounts suspended, or permanently banned for repeat offenses.” On the surface, that post looked like an extensive reminder of the rules. Soon, though, players would realize it may be much more than that.

Recently, two prominent Final Fantasy 14 players (Hiroro and Bagel Goose) were sent to “in-game jail” for streaming the game while using mods. It’s not clear exactly which mods they were using, but the most obvious ones simply relay additional in-game information (such as damage counters) When I say “in-game jail,” that’s not an exaggeration. Just look at what happened to Bagel Goose during a recent stream:

Both Bagel Goose and Hiroro were transported to a special dungeon where they were confronted by a GM. While it’s not clear what they were told during those confrontations (or if they were punished in-game in any way by those GMs), one of Bagel Goose’s raid teammates has said that they received a week-long ban from Twitch for “cheating in a multiplayer game.”

The word “cheating” is the biggest sticking point in this whole situation. On the surface, being able to see something like how much damage you and your teammates are doing during a raid doesn’t sound like cheating. That’s information that a lot of high-level FF 14 players have relied on in the past without consequences, and that is information that a lot of high-level players in other MMOs have historically relied on without consequences. Using such mods (especially during grueling “world-first” runs) is something of a tradition.

While Naoki Yoshida didn’t use the words “cheating” in his recent blog post, he did mention that “a [raid] race should be fair, and it’s our earnest wish that participants don’t use third-party tools.” He goes on to state that “we’ve only released duties that we have proven can be beaten with the game’s standard features” and that the team has even considered putting an end to their official acknowledgment of world-first content clearers if those acknowledgments and congratulations “encourage excessive competition and controversy to the extent that players resort to third-party tools.”

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That’s really the heart of this controversy. On the one hand, it makes some sense that the FF 14 team would rather put a blanket ban on most mods rather than try to say which ones are ok and which ones are not. While the security concerns involved with the use of such mods are historically minimal, Yoshida rightfully points out that it’s technically safer to not allow third-party modifications at all than it is to allow some of them or even encourage the use of some of them through any means. Yoshida even stated that he believes that “people use [mods] to expand the HUD and display more information because they feel that existing functions are insufficient for tackling high-end duties.” To that end, the team “intends to review the most prominent tools, and in order to discourage their use, endeavor to enhance the functionality of the HUD.”

While that does make it sound like the FF 14 team is interested in essentially adding popular mod functions to the game and making them official, they have not confirmed their plans regarding such additional features at this time. While fans wait for such features to potentially be added in the future, they’re left to navigate an uncertain present where what are generally considered to be relatively harmless tools may be classified as cheating by both Twitch and Square Enix. So far, the consequences of using such tools have seemingly primarily impacted FF 14 streamers (who may have been targeted by online users for their use of mods), but it’s pretty clear that the FF 14 team is fundamentally not ok with the idea of those mods being used in the first place.

Why is that the case? Well, I can’t put words in the FF 14 team’s mouths, but it’s worth noting that some feel such tools contribute to a competitive, sometimes toxic, environment in what is supposed to be a cooperative experience. Basically, things like damage meter tools can contribute to an environment where everyone is expected to perform at the highest level in order to participate in certain content. If your numbers drop, you may be singled out for your performance or even kicked out of a group. That can lead to an almost “work-like” atmosphere where the fantasy of an MMO is replaced with hard data.

Having said that, there is a degree to which playing games like FF 14 at a very high level (meaning participating in world first clears) is kind of a job. Those who participate in such content usually know their participation comes with certain requirements. Where things get tricky is when that mentality bleeds into more casual forms of play. It’s pretty clear that FF 14 was designed to reduce instances of what Yoshida refers to as “excessive competition,” and anyone familiar with raiding in other MMOs knows the dread of encountering “that guy” who takes things just a bit too seriously. To that end, you could argue that these policies seem to be part of an effort to combat that element of MMO culture.

The problem is that there’s long been a bit of a divide among MMO fans regarding whether that part of the culture is really a problem and if there’s anything that can actually be done to eliminate it or reduce its influence. We’re already seeing fans argue over whether or not this is a case of people simply being punished for not following the rules, or whether this is an attempt by the game’s developers to enforce an artificial atmosphere of cooperation and harmony. There’s no doubt that these players violated the terms of service, but there’s quite a heated debate to be had about whether or not those rules should exist in the first place.

Ultimately, the FF 14 team has done an exceptional job of listening to the game’s community and satisfying their requests. The game’s incredible success reflects their accomplishments in that area. While there’s no reason to suspect they won’t be able to find a solution to this particular problem, it is fascinating to see how this issue highlights what could prove to be a philosophical difference in how the team would like the game to be played and how it’s actually being played at certain levels.

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