Anna Clemens, who has been developing Final Fantasy XIV plugins for three years, is an outlier among the FFXIV modders I’ve talked with. She publishes under the name ‘ascclemens,’ and she doesn’t make any effort to hide her full name and contact information. She’s also the only one of the MMORPG‘s modders that I spoke with who agreed to have her name published in this piece.
Mods in Final Fantasy XIV are off-limits; anything that isn’t baked into the PC game is technically against the rules. On that topic, Clemens says that “every developer is somewhat worried, but I’m not too worried.” For a long while, mods have existed in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” state – plenty of players use them, and as long as you’re not bragging about it, you probably won’t get in any trouble.
Developers occupy a slightly different space. The dealer has a bigger target on their back than the user. One of the more popular hubs for gameplay-altering modifications is Dalamud, a plugin infrastructure that allows players to download a curated selection of tweaks. Clemens’ plugins are accessed through Dalamud.
I had the chance to speak with one of Dalamud’s lead programmers (they requested anonymity, so I’ll just call them DP). DP also works on the wildly popular custom launcher XIVLauncher, which allows PC players to save their login information and facilitates the use of Dalamud plugins. They have a slightly more fraught relationship with mod development. They’re much cagier about publicity, and they say most modders are similarly cautious of the limelight. Plugins have gotten a lot of attention with FFXIV’s recent explosion in popularity, a result of the release of a major expansion coinciding with a global pandemic.
DP says, “we basically rely on living a niche where nobody cares about us.” Catching the spotlight is dangerous; DP says they discourage streamers from using plugins, not just because players who are caught modding are in danger of a ban, but because it’s unsafe to leave a paper trail pointing to Dalamud’s devs. They remain hopeful that SE will take cues from the plugins that players respond to, but they’re also aware of the inherently tense relationship between the two parties.
This anxiety isn’t just present among plugin developers. I spoke to a fashion modder (also anonymous; we’ll call them FM) who voiced similar concerns. FM isn’t overly worried about Square Enix, but they maintain what they describe as a “healthy amount of paranoia.” Fashion mods have been at the forefront of some controversy – FFXIV fans may remember last year’s infamous ‘billboard party’, an in-game rave advertised on a real billboard. The event attracted controversy in part for literally advertising modded outfits on the billboard. FM says they haven’t felt the fallout from that incident, but they also actively avoid mentioning their work to other FFXIV players, and they say there’s always the looming threat of “a crusade against modders.”
Square Enix isn’t the only anti-modding agent out there, either. Plenty of FFXIV’s fiercest fans have their own doubts. The attitude towards third-party software has always been bizarrely hostile – during my research for this piece, I came across one FFXIV forum post arguing that using Discord for voice chat is technically cheating – but it’s become especially unpleasant recently. In January, a group of Japanese players called UNNAMED cleared a new high-difficulty raid with the assistance of gameplay-altering tools, leading to an enormous wave of backlash against third-party software. Final Fantasy XIV’s director, Naoki ‘Yoshi-P’ Yoshida, issued a statement condemning all mods and plugins, leaving mod developers in hotter water than ever.
So, if direct action from FFXIV’s developer is a constant worry, and there’s no money to be made in a hobbyist’s field, why do modders keep going? There are a few reasons, but, of course, they all boil down to one thing: modders like changing the game.
Clemens’ first full-fledged FFXIV plugin, released in the summer of 2020, is called Peeping Tom. It’s a simple mod that allows players to view when they’re being targeted by other players. Clemens designed Peeping Tom for personal use, simply because she was curious about who was looking at her, but she says she enjoys seeing other people get something out of her work. Clemens says her favourite plugin of hers is usually the most recent one she’s worked on. When we spoke, that was Orange Guidance Tomestone, a plugin that adds the ability to create messages on the ground, a la Dark Souls. In Clemens’ words, “It definitely helps that people actually get some joy out of using that one.” In true Souls fashion, Orange Guidance Tomestone is usually used for pointless messages.
DP, meanwhile, describes themself as a tinkerer first and a gamer second. Their early forays into mod development occurred around the release of FFXIV’s full-scale 2013 reboot, A Realm Reborn. This was a time when there weren’t many resources for FFXIV modders, and at a time when the game was sorely lacking in quality-of-life features. Their previous mods were for personal use only, and exclusively in single-player games, so FFXIV posed an interesting challenge. Like Clemens, DP started off making things for themselves, but Dalamud has become a host for plugins that make the game more foundationally accessible. As DP says, “we have a lot of users that rely on plugins to play the game in the first place as they are disadvantaged.”
FM started modding for their own benefit, too. They came into FFXIV around the same time as DP, and they play mostly male characters in the game. Their initial motive for fashion modding came from frustration at the limited availability of fashion mods for men, so they set about making some. They’ve adapted other pieces for male characters, they’ve worked on original pieces, and they’ve even veered into moderately NSFW modding, a field with its own community controversies – FM says the only time they’ve seen Square Enix take action against a user, it was an NSFW modder who advertised their Twitter. They tell me that “Becoming a pure NSFW modder is something I do not want.”
Modding isn’t just about altering the game, though. It’s also about community. Kinship and camaraderie were major points of discussion among all the developers I spoke with. Both FM and DP started modding before there was significant mod support, and they both seem impressed by the way the community has grown over the last several years; FM says the resources available to new fashion modders have made the hobby significantly more accessible. Clemens seemingly confirms this – she hasn’t been a part of the scene for as long as the other two modders I spoke with, but she says that she found XIVLauncher and Dalamud early in her modding journey, and they were valuable tools.
The modding community seems content to share information freely and playfully. Clemens shared a light-hearted tradition among Dalamud plugin developers: when features from a plugin are implemented in an official FFXIV patch, or when Square Enix directly addresses issues that plugins have already solved, plugin developers are awarded a “Certificate of Excellence.” When Square Enix stated that it would be too resource-intensive to show whether you had already collected an item in that item’s tooltip, Clemens received a Certificate of Excellence for her plugin, Good Memory, which does exactly that.
Mod developers, unsurprisingly, also use a lot of mods. Clemens tells me that she uses “nearly every plugin available,” and FM says that they make use of Dalamud plugins as well as other fashion mods. Animosity and competition are foreign concepts here. After all, everyone is aiming for the same goal: a better FFXIV.
The community informs a lot of the decisions made among modders. DP is responsible for many of the restrictions on what Dalamud will and will not host. Clemens says that she trusts Dalamud’s regulations, and that they’re part of the reason she feels so comfortable about modding. Per DP, a lot of those decisions are made based on the climate of the wider FFXIV community. For DP, differentiating between a modification and a cheat is “a constant struggle,” but the line is drawn in part by “the general mood of the community.”
DP tells me that the dividing line has changed significantly as the modding and mod-using communities have grown. “When there are 50 people that use your tools, you don’t tend to think about this,” they say, “but we’ve gotten a lot more conservative with what we allow and help with.” As mods become a bigger part of the game, and as DP’s mods become more popular, the pressure to get things right continues to mount.
The community is a double-edged sword for FFXIV. Take, for example, GShade, an incredibly popular cosmetic tool designed to make the game look better. GShade is a fork of a similar tool called ReShade (without getting too technical about the finer intricacies of GitHub repositories, you can think of it as a mod of a mod). Notably, while ReShade is open source, GShade is not. Recently, a modder called ‘NotNite’ started messing around with alternative, open-source ways to install GShade shaders. A few days later, players using NotNite’s new methods and tools discovered that GShade would forcibly restart their computers without warning.
GShade developer Marot Satil later confirmed in a Discord message to NotNite that the forced restart was a deliberate response to NotNite’s tinkering. After a brief but explosive community response to this move, GitHub took GShade off its platform entirely (Update 27th February: a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Satil removed GShade from GitHub). I can’t comment too profoundly on the thought process behind any of these moves, but it certainly seems like a cut-and-dried example of a normally comfortable, pleasant community turning in on itself, a reminder of how volatile and petty hobbyist groups can become.
At the end of the day, though, the intention behind modding is simply to make the game more enjoyable. There’s no other reason to do it. The fallout that arises from conflict between modders can be dramatic, but it’s a natural consequence of trying to make something materially better for as many people as possible. Is all this worth it? I’m not sure. But for some folks, it certainly is.
For some modders, making the game “better” means making it more accessible; FM makes use of XIVCombo, a plugin that maps repetitive combos to a single button, which helps with their attention issues and makes the game more immediately playable. For others, it just means altering aesthetics; one Dalamud plugin replaces the FFXIV health bar with a mechanically identical Kingdom Hearts health meter. In DP’s words, “Generally, I think it helps that there is no profit or clout incentive at play for most devs I know/collaborate with, we really do just wanna make the game a bit better in a passion-y sort of way.”
Passion, as far as I can tell, is the name of the game for Final Fantasy XIV modders. Sometimes, that passion explodes, leading to community-wide chaos. More often, though, it simply waxes and wanes – DP tells me that they’re planning on stepping away from modding, which has become more stressful in recent years. But there are always players around who just want a Final Fantasy XIV that’s better for them. DP says they’re not anxious about leaving the scene. The community’s gotten big enough that they no longer feel the need to act as a steward. “There are a lot of very capable and sane people now that I trust to steer these projects,” they say. As far as I can tell, FM and Clemens have no intention of slowing down any time soon.