Ultimates, World First, and “Cheating” – The Omega Protocol Discourse

It’s new Ultimate season in FFXIV, and you know what that means – addon, plugin, and third party tool discourse!

Yesterday, Japanese team UNNAMED_ announced their world first clear of The Omega Protocol, the newest Ultimate added in patch 6.31 of Endwalker. It’s a hard endurance fight that stretches to around 20 minutes for a full pull and kill, and marks the first time in a minute that a Japanese group has gotten the world first kill on an Ultimate. Interesting, story over, onward we go, right?


As ever with an Ultimate race, there was a controversy over the first kill. Much like Dragonsong Reprise was beaten by a team that was later not acknowledged by the development team due to their use of a plugin that provided buff timers on the party frames and their use of their own custom-made raid triggers for automated callouts on certain mechanics, UNNAMED_ used a zoom hack tool to get their camera far enough out from the action to more easily see certain mechanics, a fact which became public due to some internal controversy with the team. They had 3 supports in addition to the 8 core members, who were promised they’d be cycled in for kills on the fight and then that was pulled back, allegedly, and so one of the supports leaked stream footage that showed the zoom hack (under a YouTube account literally named “Divine Punishment,” how dramatic). The team’s leadership announced they’d be ceasing runs in FFXIV, two of them claim to have deleted their characters, and the team was, apparently, stripped of the gear, titles, and achievements by GMs.

This has led to the most tedious and bullshit part of being in the FFXIV – third party tool discourse, oh boy. This one felt like a big deal because the Japanese teams are usually notoriously clean as a stereotype – there is common refrain and complaints on the JP forums and in Japanese social media like 5ch that only foreigners use these tools and that the Japanese teams are the best because they can play without them, an illusion which this event very much shatters. For the high-end raiders on social media, this has largely been a meme fest with some commentary about what it means for the world first race, an event that is still not as much of a thing but has been gaining in popularity, and for the majority of the FFXIV playerbase, it has brought out the dullest, most insipid opinions about “cheating” and the “integrity of the race.”

Before I dive into pure editorial (because boy, I have thoughts on this), I think it is worth doing the normal song and dance we do about this discussion. If it started and ended with, “third party tools are against the TOS and punishment is warranted,” then fine. I have no objections to that, and I think that the argument against external tools is on its strongest ground there. It’s accurate, removes any subtext or personal opinion from it, and provides the only necessary background for why this matters at all and why the development team moved to act on it with account actions and removal of rewards. In current conditions, this is the only thing that needs to be said and the only justification needed – everything else is posturing. Any other argument devolves into subjective takes, speculation, and personal opinion. The rules of the game say don’t use tools, and if you’re caught using tools, the sole discretion for action on that rests with the game’s GM staff and development team. Simple and easy.

If this is where it stopped, it’s whatever. The discourse, however, winds on, and I want to tackle a couple of points I see a lot of with my own counter-points or elaboration.

“It’s Cheating!”

Is it, though? I mean, okay, let’s break this point down. The rules of the game say you can’t use third party tools. If you use them, it is cheating – sure, I agree with that. They allow for things the default game doesn’t – fine enough to call it cheating. Does cheating matter in this instance, though? That…I feel less sure of. I mean, okay, obviously if I’m in the world first race and someone beats me using a tool that is against the TOS, that feels bad, now I’m second place (or less) and even if the first place team is outed as having used tools, my ranking still feels like a loss, especially if I’m like, second place. Sure, you might say the first place is disregarded and thus I am number 1, but it damn sure won’t feel like a win.

But as long as the race is unofficial and doesn’t mean anything to the broader game, then what does it matter? It’s not an eSport and no one is getting a prize purse for their illicit first place win. The pride of it matters, sure – and I am sympathetic to those in the race who feel bad about the loss, but at the same time, life goes on. You still get to play and experience the content, you still get the thrill of beating it, and someone else doing it before you doesn’t really take that away from you, does it? If you lose the race to an non-streaming team who doesn’t use tools, does that feel any better? Or if you lose to a streaming team who is shown to not use tools – what then?

You can only really “cheat” if a race has stakes and meaning, and sure, to a point, there is a social meaning and community meaning to the world first races on Ultimates. At the same time though, does it really diminish anyone else’s experience?

The thing that I come back to repeatedly is how a lot of people in the race comment on it neutrally or more understandingly. I rarely see fiery condemnations about cheating from the people, you know, actually doing Ultimate. And, to be clear, that’s fine – I don’t believe you have to have done a thing to have an opinion about it (otherwise lol at me writing this!), but I think it’s rather telling that those in the race are less willing to jump in on the “cheating” bandwagon.

Right now, the state of the race in FFXIV is always going to be a hot topic because there is a hybrid of teams streaming and not streaming, and it is very typically non-streaming teams that win. This discourse always ends up leading to the question and doubt of why teams don’t stream – are they protecting their strategies, or are they “cheating?” The ecosystem as it exists today is one that sows the seeds of doubt and anger. The race has no integrity because it is unofficial and has no rules outside of those governing the game, and even then, there are valid questions that can be asked about if those rules are the right ones. Speaking of…

“What About The Integrity Of The Race?”

What about it?

The race has no integrity because it is a fan-made construct comprised of teams setting their own rules against the backdrop of those that the game enforces. As long as it is not an official contest with agreed-upon rules and all teams subject to the same rules and level of scrutiny, there is no integrity. None. Now, standardization could bring it to a point where that’s untrue – the WoW Mythic world first race is not an official construct of Blizzard, but it has an agreed upon ruleset and open streaming of prog from all the top teams, and the teams involved respect the outcome of the race, even when it sometimes comes down to clown shoes bullshit like this tier where the last boss was heavily nerfed during prog to a point where it did influence the outcome at least slightly. But that is the thing – the community has standards it agrees to as constituting a valid race and works within those constraints consistently. The FFXIV community doesn’t really have that. Sure, there’s MogTalk’s RWF stream, and there are efforts within these community constructs to create a consistent code of conduct (I like alliteration, okay?), but even as of this moment, there is no consistent ruleset. Some teams stream, some don’t. Some teams share progress checkpoints and upload logs, others don’t. Some teams claim to play pure with no tools, not even ACT for parsing, many others quite obviously have at least someone using ACT for logs, and others are using who knows what.

Once a race is built with a consistent set of ideals and rules to follow, sure, there is an integrity worth defending, but today, at this moment? No such race exists. I respect that players in the race might not like the idea that the race doesn’t really have integrity, but it just doesn’t – even right now with titles and gear stripped, will everyone agree that UNNAMED_ is not world first? No. That alone is a big sign, in my view, that the race isn’t anywhere near being a consistent, measurable contest of skill. Skill is involved, and there’s a general practice of what is accepted, but there’s no enforcement mechanism – hell, if UNNAMED_ hadn’t pissed off their supports, we might not ever even know that they zoomhacked and that’s a big thing for me. For all the posturing about tools, we simply do not know what is or is not in use. Even on a streamed team, if not everyone is in stream, you can’t say for sure, not to mention that a lot of plugins work as overlays and are not a part of the game’s display output, so a stream capturing the game client but not the full display will not even show plugins that work that way, meaning you could be watching someone with a cornucopia of tools in use and not even know!

Yoshida’s statement about the world first race today gives some hope there that the FFXIV devs might bring the race on as an official idea, and MogTalk is considering only tracking and counting streaming teams for world first in their eyes – although, again, someone streaming alone is not sufficient evidence of plugin-free gameplay. Tough nut to crack, for sure!

Ultimate Is Still Hard

Stepping outside of the philosophical here, UNNAMED_ still was the first team to beat it, and as I write this, the only team to beat TOP. While the zoomhack is against TOS, it also feels like a really dumb drum to beat on that they “cheated” given the nature of what a zoomhack does. Hell, there is real debate in the FFXIV community about if ultrawide monitors are a gameplay advantage worthy of policing because they increase the field of view enough to make some mechanics easier to decipher! Does seeing more make the fight easier to process? Sure, I wouldn’t argue otherwise. If that is all it took to get a team over the edge, though, then it begs the question – does it really merit this idiotic crusade? They still had to play skillfully for a long period of time, as Ultimate fights are nearly 20 minute contests of endurance that require damn near perfect play throughout. Can a view of the full field really trivialize all of that? In my opinion, no. I think that a lot of the “cheating!” discourse that actively annoys me is the thought that a camera angle makes the fight easy, like – okay then, why don’t you go do it? If it’s so easy with big zoom out, then why haven’t other non-streaming teams gotten it done? It’s the same debate with Cactbot and triggers – is there a real discussion about crossed lines to be had there or what the cumulative impact of reduced cognitive burden in raiding is? Sure, there definitely is. Do any of these tools reduce fights from crazy challenge to easily conquered? No, of course not. Being told where to stand and actually standing there are two different actions, obviously, but we still have to reduce the discussion to this because people want to grandstand.

The challenge of Ultimate is still real and valid, and anyone beating it deserves their kudos. I don’t care personally for how it gets done outside of ability hacks or movement speed hacks, getting a kill is still an immensely high bar of accomplishment. This is subjective, obviously, and you might disagree, and that’s fine – but I think that if moving the camera out more was all it took to get the win, then it means they were already playing well enough to get the kill. It’s tiresome to watch people strut around as though a camera zoom invalidates the genuine hard work put into the kill. Speaking of tiresome stuff…

Yoshi P Isn’t Your Dad And The Community Discussion On This Is Fucking Weird

So, like, okay, here’s where I might get actually controversial, but I fucking loathe the way the FFXIV community discusses YoshiP at times. Is he a good developer, designer, director? Absolutely. I take nothing away from the man when I say this – he’s a phenomenal game mastermind most of the time and I have an immense respect for the job he does at the helm of FFXIV. When the community is ironically memeing about him as dad and talking about his funny mannerisms and such, it’s fine. But the third party tools discussion always, without fail, brings out this fucking weird parasocial side of the FFXIV community, where it crosses from “ha, funny joke” irony to an unironic worship/father figuring/deification of this guy, and like, can we not? Everyone is like, “I feel so bad for him” and, “dad is disappointed again,” and it’s just the most bizarre, childish thing. He’s a business leader making a business decision and communicating it to the community, not your uWu father replacement doing tough love parenting. One of the FCs I’m in has an unreadable Discord today because it’s a mix of parasocial sympathy for “dad” and creepy, out of line discussion about how it would hurt if YoshiP spanked you with his normal hand jewelry on (which is like, please don’t do that). Does Yoshida have some form of genuine disappointment with the community over the constant recurrence of the third party tools discussion? I’m sure he does, yeah. He’s voiced it directly multiple times, in fact! Does that mean I have to feel like I let a distant father down because the community can’t “behave?” Absolutely fucking not.

You can definitely respect the job that Yoshi P does steering the ship of FFXIV without turning it into a childlike relationship with a man you’ve never met where you worry about disappointing him or him being generally disappointed. It is his job to manage the game, not some parental duty where you can project whatever creepy weird thing you have about dads onto him, and I think the bad aspects of the FFXIV community would be tamped down a lot if people just, like, thought about it for a second and stopped treating him like some mythical figure outside of standard convention. He’s a great game developer with a good mind and it should be enough to respect the work he’s done on the game and the way he’s pulled it out of the mud without turning it into a parasocial shitshow where you write, where other people can see, about how much it would hurt your bottom if he spanked you with his fucking rings on. (I’m sorry I shared this tidbit and now you have to know it’s out there too.) He has some opportunities in this space though, because…

The FFXIV Third Party Tools Policy Sucks

I’ve been dancing around this one, so let’s just state it plainly – the FFXIV 3rd party tools rules are dumb and unenforceable and this whole thing is a creation of the team that will keep happening as long as the status quo is maintained. I don’t say that because I want to use them or want to have them strictly banned, but as a simple observation of reality. As long as the stance of the development staff remains that the tools are against TOS but no monitoring or enforcement against them can be done unless they are visibly streamed or discussed in game, then they will never go away or standardize into an agreeable form. They’re safe to use provided you can keep your mouth shut and keep them off streams (and sometimes that is super simple to do as-is), and every time this happens, YoshiP only affirms the same stuff – that inaction is the policy of the day.

I’m extremely sympathetic to the fact that plugins and addons not being available on consoles confers an advantage to PC users by default, and that Square Enix has to balance the needs of console players in any consideration about the game, policies surrounding it, and enforcement actions. I also respect and appreciate that the team doesn’t want to put intrusive anti-cheat or monitoring applications into the game and I hope that remains their stance on that issue. That is why I continue to stand by the idea that the best way to make a consistent, enforceable policy is to create an addon API that works on all versions of the game and to build that API and the game’s base code in a way that only allows actions the team would deem permissible to be modded in. I am not a programmer, but my basic understanding of how Dalamud and plugins work in the first place is that they inject code into the game that allows them to function, and you could maybe get away with a less-intrustive injection detection or prevention mechanism over full anti-cheat if you then just built an API that allowed some measure of limited interaction with the game on the development team’s own terms.

There are more solutions that exist beyond “doing nothing” and “extremely draconian and loathed software lockdown measures,” and every time that the discussion goes to “doing nothing” just continues to allow the existing, broken status quo to perpetuate. At this point, a big part of why third party tools continue to exist and grow is because the team’s stance has no teeth, and the community discussion continues to be tedious because everyone (myself included!) draws their own line somewhere or another. Last time I wrote on this, you had people with model mods and graphical tweaks from third party tools demonizing “all third party tools” (oh the irony is delicious) and you had people who have never entered as much as an EX trial complaining that triggers and basic callout mods play the game for you and remove all the prestige, while people using gameplay tools attempt to define their own line in a way that applies what they see as consistency. It’s a fucking mess, basically, and it continues to be a mess and a growing mess because Square Enix and the FFXIV team let it be a loosey-goosey, ill-defined patchwork policy that is both crystal-clear and yet almost completely unenforceable in any meaningful way.

Do Not Fear Becoming World of Warcraft, You Will Never Be WoW

One thing that grinds my gears, excessively at times, about the FFXIV community is this incessant whining about how the game might suffer the fate of WoW. WoW has addons on addons and every player has a totally different UI and setup. On top of that, boss mods have irrevocably changed the endgame scene in WoW to where mechanic soup is more regularly needed to defeat players. Except that’s also kind of an exaggeration. WoW is a different gameplay model where pattern recognition is but one part of a larger whole that is, quite often, chaos in a bottle. Boss mods also don’t trivialize bosses there either, because there is still a demand for quick action where you are juggling a handful of things. Again, like with Cactbot and triggers, there is a discussion to be had about the impact of reducing cognitive burden on raid fights, but I think boss mods on both sides maintain a high degree of player requirements. Sure, Deadly Boss Mods in WoW can tell your raiders with the static charge debuff on Raszageth where to stand, but they still have to respond and process that in time to avoid the proximity damage being too high that it kills a raider.

But a lot of the discussion about WoW in the FFXIV community boils down to boogeyman bullshit about how boss mods made WoW unplayable, and like, that’s subjective, but the thing about the two games is that WoW is fiercely instrumental in play practices while FFXIV is far more open. WoW’s fundamental gameplay design from top to bottom encourages instrumental play – there is, without fail, nearly always a “right” way to do things, and the rewards mechanisms in WoW encourage players to constantly push harder and higher. FFXIV is very laid back in comparison – Ultimate rewards are cosmetic, Savage rewards are higher item level gear but non-raiders can match that item level within the same tier in almost every slot, so the pressure to play optimally or stress to that degree is far more muted in FFXIV. It definitely still exists, and I won’t pretend otherwise, but at a fundamental design level, FFXIV just does not have the philosophy that creates stuff like boss mod-dominated raiding. Even if it had more of that in its DNA, the game doesn’t have public testing or the kind of rigorous, constant datamining of content WoW does, so there wouldn’t be day 1 boss triggers like WoW players have day 1 DBM mods for new raids. On nearly every front, the conditions in WoW and FFXIV for players of high-end content are quite different and the culture of it creates a very different scenario by comparison. WoW’s competitive culture leaks into more aspects of the game, by virtue of how the game structures content and reuses stuff like dungeons as the backbone of a repeatable content infrastructure.

And that’s the rub – if you genuinely fear FFXIV becoming WoW, there is no need for that, as the conditions are vastly different between the two and the way both games treat their content is pretty far apart. Even down to the way in which mechanics are designed, both games are simply different in that regard, and a lot of the cultural issues that made boss mods prevalent in WoW just aren’t there in FFXIV. Provided the game maintains social policy around how players interact and maintains current enforcement of those policies, a world where FFXIV has boss mods through an API as fully allowed is not really on trajectory to become like WoW.

At Least With A Japanese Team Using Third Party Tools, We Can Stop The Stupid “WoW Refugees BAD” Narrative

FFXIV is often unwelcoming of WoW players if they, god forbid, know you came from there. If saying, “I play/played WoW” doesn’t create a patronizing response like you’re some sort of trauma survivor, it can often create a feeling of unease. A lot of FFXIV players, especially those who never played WoW, have a weird dystopian view of the game like it is some sort of Mad Max hellscape where high-end players control access to water or something. A lot of discussion around world first raiding, third party tools, and hell, just anything bad that ever happens in FFXIV since mid-Shadowbringers, tends to go in this dumb direction of “those gosh darned WoW refugees” like FFXIV was a pure and untainted paradise before us dirty Azerothians found it. Never mind that a lot of us have been here from the beginning or damn close (my 1.0 collector’s box says hello!) or that third party tools have been a consistent part of the world first race since at least Ultima Weapon Ultimate (Titan gaol plugins and automarkers, anyone?), anything bad in FFXIV is, quite often, blamed on WoW refugees.

To the extent that I take any solace in the current scenario, it is that a fully Japanese team who has no history in World of Warcraft are the ones who got caught with tools this time, because it undercuts that stupid narrative. Or, well, it should – we’ll see in the long-term if it creates any solace, even temporary, but at least a lot of the memes and dunking are focused on the actual issue this time without the “go back to WoW” posturing that tends to come up in these talks.

Let’s Be Real, This Is All Pointless And I’ll See You Again In The First 7.x Ultimate

At the end of the day (resisting my urge to abuse “ultimately,” here), all of this is meaningless and pointless discussion because it has happened now for like, 4 ultimates in a row. YoshiP does the letter release, parasocial clingers in the community worry about disappointing their projected dad (not me, mine’s been dead almost 25 years now!), there’s all sorts of tongue clucking and bizarre moralizing about the integrity of an ill-defined race to beat a video game boss, and we’ll probably get a view distance option expanded in 6.4. Everyone will forget about this in like a week or two as more teams cross the finish line, and then when we get our first 7.x Ultimate, someone will have footage of a plugin and we’ll chase our tails again over the issue while Yoshi P writes big letters and does nothing. Are they gonna take away Ultimates? Highly doubt it, even if he threatens it vaguely in the new letter. Are they gonna add anti-cheat? Probably not. Will they make an addon API or change their stance even slightly? I don’t expect it and I would certainly bet against it with real money. Will world first racers stream their runs? More will, sure. Will that change the complexion of the race or the validity of the results? Not as long as most raid-facing plugins are overlays that can be easily hidden on stream.

But at least I’ll have better-quality normal maps to make my Au’ra extra scaly with the graphics engine update, so, uh, I guess me and my scales will see you in 7.x for this exact same discussion.


One thought on “Ultimates, World First, and “Cheating” – The Omega Protocol Discourse

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