For Disabled FFXIV Players, Mods are a Necessity for Accessibility

Mods and plug-ins aren't just for raiders. There's another part of the player base that needs third-party tools to play.

K, a Final Fantasy XIV player, is a Scholar main with a heart of gold. They regularly hang out in the novice network, offering advice on game mechanics and answering lore questions for newer players. K loves FFXIV, and like many passionate FFXIV fans, they seek to help other players fall in love with the game too.

But sometimes, K struggles to complete certain dungeons and fights. They have Tritanomaly, a type of colorblindness that makes it hard to differentiate between blue and green, and yellow and red. This is a disability they can typically work around while playing — the far riskier one comes in the form of epilepsy and migraines triggered by flashing lights. K is a disabled player — one who uses mods and plug-ins to fill in the MMORPG’s accessibility gaps.

They’re not alone. Quite a few disabled FFXIV players have to rely on mods, a fact that FFXIV developers haven’t quite acknowledged in their missives against third-party tools. While mods in FFXIV have always been against Terms of Service, the devs recently released a statement reaffirming their stance against third-party tools — a reaffirmation seemingly prompted by the world race for the Dragonsong’s Reprise Ultimate raid.

In response, the debate over mods reignited again within the online FFXIV community. There are those who were alarmed and feared the hammer-of-bans would strike upon all players who use mods. There are those who remain ambivalent; after all, FFXIV has never allowed mods. They would do what they’ve always done: use mods, but covertly.

ffxiv third circle savage accessibility and colors
The Third Circle (Savage) raid instance is a recent example of how FFXIV‘s color palette hinder the gameplay experience for those with certain visual impairments.

And then there are those who need mods in order to play and/or take better care of their health — a fact that is seldom acknowledged by both FFXIV’s community and developers. In the May 2022 statement on The Lodestone blog, Director and Producer Naoki Yoshida mentioned the team will “review the most prominent tools” to help improve the experience in the future. But as it stands, players who need better accessibility tools have been left hanging.

A number of disabled FFXIV players recently spoke with me to share their insight on which mods they use and why. We also talked about the current state of accessibility in FFXIV, as well as what they hope to see from the game in the future.

FFXIV Does A Lot Of Things Right Already…

Accessibility in games has improved over the years, with a lot of popular games now including full controller remapping and colorblind filter options as a standard. And some, like The Last of Us Part II, set a new bar for assisting those with visual, hearing, and motor impairments. Compared to the arcade era where players were expected to be able to stand while playing, use a joystick, and squint at indistinguishable graphical elements, modern games with basics like colorblind filters, remapping options, and customizable HUDs leave footprints in the right direction.

The FFXIV devs already do a lot right in terms of general accessibility. Robust button and keybind remapping options, flexible conditionals for character control, and extensively customizable UI elements have been present since the game’s launch. In 2018, the devs added colorblind filter options for players on PC and Mac. Almost every disabled player who spoke to me enthusiastically applauded the HUD and remapping features, saying they can create display and control schemes that work for them.

A few of the many options for HUD customization (left) and the colorblind and visual accessibility options built into the game (right).

Andi started playing FFXIV in November 2021, right before the launch of Endwalker. Like many players, a loved one indoctrinated them into playing FFXIV. Andi’s disability is complex, affecting their mind and whole body. The primary difficulties they face while playing video games are with using their hands for a given control scheme, catching visual cues, hearing audio cues, and properly processing in-game information.

They praise FFXIV’s remapping options, which allow Andi to set up a custom control scheme that works for their limited hand mobility. “I’ve got all my movement on my mouse, walking forward with both left and right click, backward with the scroll wheel click, and autorun on a side button,” Andi says. “It works quite great, and it’s lovely to always see what buttons are tied to what actions on my screen.”

Any and all actions in FFXIV can be remapped and configured in the way you want or need. An example of a few options: custom gamepad mapping (left), mouse customization (right).

Meow is another player with limited mobility who plays with one hand. He also says FFXIV‘s flexible remapping options work well for him; in fact, he doesn’t use any mods or plug-ins. He finds that FFXIV’s UI accessibility options — like being able to rebind every key or input multiple keybind combinations for different hotbars — are solid. However, those options have room for improvement.

“There are things I wish I could add, like putting 1-2-3 combos in one button like how it plays in PVP,” Meow says. “I play the game with a Stream Deck Pedal, which basically unlocks three buttons I can press with my foot. It’s helped my gameplay [by] allowing me to use Ctrl/Alt combos for my hotbar and also spacebar with my foot.”

…But Disabled Players Say FFXIV Still Has A Way To Go

K, who started playing FFXIV in early 2014, has had a long time to think about how FFXIV’s accessibility features can further be improved. For their specific type of colorblindness, K would like Square Enix to consider additional colorblind accessibility tools. They describe current options as, “slightly better than industry standard, which is really to say that they are the bare minimum, but at least they exist.”

They’d love to see deeper customization like setting the default orange AoE marker to a different color or being able to tweak waymark colors. Waymarks are also distinguishable by shapes, but for K, the waymarks blend into the background visuals in fights like Asphodelos: The Fourth Circle (Savage), unnecessarily making things more difficult.

Waymarks can be difficult to distinguish with the color scheme and aesthetics of Asphodelos: The Fourth Circle (Savage).

As mentioned earlier, K also has epilepsy and migraines triggered by flashing lights. Their migraines and seizures are debilitating, causing confusion, disorientation, aphasia, loss of vision, and nausea that can last for hours to days. They note Square Enix has been good about mitigating seizure triggers by taking actions like adjusting the visual elements in The Tower at Paradigm’s Breach, a level 80 alliance raid, with a hotfix.

But in order to avoid triggering migraines and see mechanics more clearly, K uses multiple third-party tools — a popular graphics mod called GShade, a modded UI that allows them to more easily determine a player’s Job by icon shape, and a mod that can change the visible in-game weather to avoid the lightning storms that trigger their migraines.

Regarding their visual impairment, Andi also sees color accessibility options in FFXIV as quite limited. A major issue in much of the game’s content is the lacking color contrast in its visuals — some instances are too dark to comfortably see and the AoE markers of certain fights blend into the environment’s color palette. While players can adjust gamma and character lighting in-game, this doesn’t help players like Andi very much.

Rather than GShade, Andi instead uses Nvidia’s driver-based filter to boost color vibrancy and contrast, among other tweaks. Their eyes also become strained when reading too much text, so they use XIVLauncher and Dalamud text-to-speech plug-ins for unvoiced dialogue and chat logs.

Drake, a seasoned MMO raider, has Deuteranomaly, a red and green colorblindness. He says his experience with almost every game with color-based gameplay mechanics has been “rough.” FFXIV, Destiny 2, and World of Warcraft are games that have been “just off the mark when it comes to designing their fights in a manner that’s entirely colorblind friendly, but they do at least try,” he says.

In FFXIV, Drake uses GShade to differentiate color markers. If callouts for mechanics are based on colors, he occasionally turns on the plug-in Advanced Combat Tracker (ACT) and hopes it’ll initiate an audio cue for the mechanic he’s handling. But if it’s a fight on day one of its release, he and his party or static get creative. They’ll use numbers or cardinal directions instead of color combinations to signify ways of resolving new mechanics.

Drake hopes to see better designed tools for tweaking color presentation in FFXIV for those with colorblindness, as well as fewer fights that rely heavily on color-coded mechanics. Multiple disabled players I spoke with say the new Pandaemonium raids are emblematic of this problem.

ffxiv asphodelos third circle savage aoe markers orange colors
Asphodelos: The Third Circle and it’s orange-yellow color palette make it needlessly difficult for several players to read the mechanics of the fight.

K says the orange AoE markers in Asphodelos: The Third Circle essentially look the same as the floor to them. Mythos, another player with limited vision, says running the Savage version with the clashing of a full-blown orange color palette design strains eyes. The Fourth Circle (Savage) has mechanics with purple dark tethers and blue water tethers, which are also difficult for Mythos to differentiate. Those are designed with other visual indicators, like the water tether including bubbles, but they’re not instantly recognizable.

By and large, the Pandaemonium: Asphodelos raid series is designed with unfriendly color choices — a fact that the community has been vocal about, as is evident in a much up-voted Reddit thread on the topic.

Aside from color, many longtime battle mechanics could use built-in audio cues. Skif, another player with visual impairments, highlights the game’s Doom debuff — a mechanic featured in so many fights that learning it is considered to be a rite of passage for players — as a particularly egregious example. Players know they’ve been inflicted with the instant-death debuff when a red and black status icon pops up, but otherwise, there’s no other indication and no audio cue for the effect.

And FFXIV’s room for accessibility improvement extends far beyond its gameplay mechanics. Skif had to skip certain parts of Heavenward and Shadowbringers due to visual exhaustion from having to read unvoiced dialogue. With a text-to-speech plug-in, he can go back and finally experience the full story. He hopes that the FFXIV team can implement in-game text-to-speech natively so that others don’t need to miss out on crucial parts of FFXIV’s much-celebrated narrative.

What A Blanket Ban Against Mods Really Means

While mods are against the Terms of Service, Square Enix hasn’t heavily enforced the policy nor overly policed the playerbase, seemingly adopting an unofficial “as long as we don’t see it” attitude. In that May 2022 blog post, Yoshida stated that in no way will Square Enix ever comb your data for mods. But if the company actually sees players using mods (videos and streams) or if it’s a subject of player harassment, it will take action.

The opinions on Square Enix’s mod policy vary wildly among the players who spoke to me. Skif takes a middle-of-the-road opinion. He thinks the blanket ban is a heavy-handed but understandable approach. “It’s hard to police mods when you have to go through them one by one,” he says.

He does believe players who stream and subsequently get banned for using mods are responsible for the outcome. But he adds that if he were Square Enix, he’d look into what mods were being used and why, and consider incorporating them into the game.

Drake says Square Enix has already given players who use mods a certain amount of leeway, a policy likely to continue. “My feelings towards the blanket ban of mods has and always will be that there is no reason to need them if your game is perfect — and their game is not, by any means, so some wiggle room like they’ve given us will always be necessary,” he says. Additionally, he feels streaming with visible mods shouldn’t lead to a ban if they’re not being used to ruin someone else’s experience.

Andi feels very strongly that FFXIV‘s blanket ban on mods “fucks shit up for players with any kind of specific need, be it a disability, a technological or practical limitation, a language barrier, or whatever else.” Perhaps there’s a path for the developers to instead create standards for what type of mods are allowed, setting up an official evaluation process or relying on community reporting for which mods add necessary features versus which are malicious.

“There are so many different edge cases out there that can happen on the user end where, in many other games, modders will have a solution,” Andi says. “A lot of those, such as disabilities, should have native support, but when native support is lacking or slow to roll out, it is really very nice to be able to lean on the wonderful efforts of fellow gamers who just so happen to have a clever brain for programming.”

K understands Square Enix’s position on banning mods, saying it’s understandable since no MMO will encourage modding; even the “add-on filled” World of Warcraft doesn’t allow shaders. But they still argue that “it doesn’t make it less inconvenient for players that use them as aides to bring themselves up to the basic, literally painless game experience everyone else has.”

Even the Best Can Always Get Better

All the players I spoke to demonstrated an ultimate desire to see FFXIV be a better, more inclusive game. K’s stuck with it for eight years — a veteran player by any measure. In Drake’s case, one doesn’t do Ultimates unless they genuinely enjoy the FFXIV brand of raids. Even just getting through A Realm Reborn, which many deem to be a slog, despite the limitations is a testament to Andi’s engagement.

The FFXIV team does a lot right in terms of accessibility already, offering great remapping and UI customization options. But it’s also evident that there are several accessibility gaps currently filled by third-party mods and plug-ins. A blanket statement on banning mods, which would include those accessibility tools, without offering alternatives is a disservice to these players.

It’s also important to note that while mods can fill-in certain accessibility gaps, their helpfulness is still limited. They have to work within the confines of what’s already been designed for the game, and volunteer modders of course don’t have access to the same development tools to can’t overhaul things at a basic design level. Thinking about disabled players and their needs must start within the design process itself and not as an afterthought once the needs of able-bodied players are addressed first.

As Skif succinctly puts it: “Just because FFXIV is the best does not mean it cannot be better.”