Image credit: Hodgedogs, via Flickr

At the beginning of the month a modder from Finland updated a program that lets players of the 2015 game The Division take jaw-dropping screenshots. On Tuesday of this week, just over a week later, he was informed by the game’s publisher that he’s been banned from the game forever.

Cinematic Tools is a program developed by a Finish physics student named Matti Hietanen to help players take control of in-game cameras for the purposes of capturing interesting footage and images. He’s made the tool for 22 games, from Battlefield 1 to Dark Souls III, to Star Wars: Battlefront II. When the program is running, players i can map Hotkeys to things like a free cam mode, timestop, and HUD removal as well as play around with the camera’s depth of field. This means they can unhook the camera from their player, make the sun set, change the weather and snap a great screenshot of the game from an angle that normal players would never see. It can result in beautiful work.

Hietanen first crafted the tools for The Division back in 2016, but anti-cheat measures that were later introduced into the game by its creators at Ubisoft stopped them from working. Last month Hietanen began optimizing the program once again and was able to achieve a stable version. As soon as he released them, people began taking great shots in The Division. They flew the game’s camera into the sky to take striking images of The Division’s snowy, disaster-worn New York City. They zoomed in on broken windows, body bags, and distilled scenes down into their grim parts. The results have been beautiful:

Image credit: Hodgedogs, via Twitter.

Hietanen has been tweeting screenshots from people who used his tools. And then on February 6 he tweeted a message he says he got from Ubisoft:

“We have detected recurring actions on your account which are in direct breach of our code of conduct. Please be aware that we have taken the necessary steps to preserve the play experience for others and this has resulted in you receiving a permanent ban. You will therefore be unable to play Tom Clancy’s The Division.”

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“Whoops,” he tweeted on Tuesday. “Worth it tho.”

Cinematic Tools isn’t designed for cheating, but it was built using things like Cheat Engine, a program that some players use to look for opponents’ information, positions, and aim angles in a multiplayer match. He said he used them in order to dig into the game’s code and find ways to take control of its third-person camera, day and night cycle, and weather effects. All of this breaches the game’s Code of Conduct. Hietanen warns potential users of Cinematic Tools on his website that bans are possible. A warning there reads: “I do not take any responsibility for banned accounts and such. Use at your own risk!” While Ubisoft did not respond to a request for comment on the ban, it’s not surprising that it happened.

Image credit: Petri Levälahti, via Twitter

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Hietanen thinks that its his use of Cheat Engine that got him in trouble and not for his own Cinematic Tools program. “I’ve heard of other people who have gotten banned for using Cheat Engine for screenshotting so that gives me some confidence it isn’t about the Cinematic Tools.” Using Cheat Engine to reverse engineer how a game’s camera works is currently an unavoidable part of how he builds his tools though. He added that while automated bans are expected, he hopes that appeals are at least looked at. “I don’t think that’d be too hard and staying completely silent to banned content creators, no matter how hard they try making contact, really sucks,” Hietanen said. This is the first time he’s ever been banned for life.

The punishment has been worth though at least in part because of some of the amazing screenshots people have already managed to capture in the game using his work. When I asked, he pointed to the following as a few examples of some of his favorites so far:

Image credit: Petri Levälahti, via Twitter

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Image credit: Hodgedogs, via Twitter.

The second is from Larah Johnson, a Swedish in-game photographer who’s been amassing an impressive body of interesting work going back to the first Borderlands. “My main focus is to capture how the game looks, the art in the game itself,” she said in an email. “I want to connect with people, surprise them in any way.” Johnson uses Hietanen’s program in various games to try and set the scene, adjusting the weather and lighting, as well as where the camera will be hanging, and then captures the moment. From there she touches it up using a post-processing tool called ReShade.

She usually focuses on single-player games because they present less of a problem. The Division’s snowy and superbly detailed world made it an exception for her, however. In order to avoid getting banned, Johnson makes sure to stay away from the game’s multiplayer-centric areas like Safe Houses and Dark Zones. That’s where players could have a legit gripe about another player having the ability to use a free camera to look around corners or gain other advantages. “If I die in the game I exit the game immediately so I dont spawn in the safe house with the tool enabled,” she said.

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Image credit: Hodgedogs, via Flickr

Work like Johnson’s is the whole point of Hietanen’s undertaking. With the use of Cinematic Tools, other players have found ways to show a side of The Division many people haven’t seen, especially when it comes to the weather. ”There are quite a few combinations that you’ll probably never get to see, seeing how time of day moves fairly quickly and weather changes take a longer time in the game,” he said. “When you set the time of day manually to a sunrise or sunset and then apply just enough fog, you get some pretty awesome looking volumetric lighting effects.”

Now that he’s been sent into exile, however, plumbing the depths of those visual effects will be left to others. In the meanwhile he plans to go back to tinkering with the version of his tools modified for Battlefield, the series that first inspired him to try and re-program a game’s camera.

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[Update - 3:40pm, 2/10/2018] Julian Gerighty‏, Ubisoft’s creative director, reached out to Hietanen on Twitter yesterday to say he would look into the ban. “Hey Matti, I’ll check this out today. Love your work and would like to see more.” Later in the day Gerighty said “I agree” in response to claim that Hietanen’s work was not intended to facilitate cheating or otherwise harm the game’s community.