Gamers flock to Palworld’s ‘Pokémon with guns’ despite copyright qualms

When Palworld made its inauspicious debut in a teaser a year or so back, few thought this strange, blatant Pokémon ripoff would be anything but a quickly forgotten oddity. But after its Early Access release last week, the game has broken records and sold millions — reflecting the pent-up demand for a truly modern Pokémon-type game that the franchise’s developers seem unwilling to provide.

Whatever sales Palworld’s developers, a Japanese outfit called Pocketpair best known for a game called Craftworld, were expecting have surely been exceeded by an order of magnitude. The game has sold at least 5 million copies in its first week, and hit 1.5 million concurrent players on Steam over the weekend — a feat matched only by a handful of AAA games over the years.

What the hell is going on? The simple fact is that Palworld is what Pokémon fans have been asking for for years, or at least close enough to count. And whether they’re buying because they truly want it, or they want to punish Nintendo and Game Freak, or because they’re curious, or because the under-$30 price tag was too easy to justify… they’re buying it.

It’s broken through to the mainstream so much that my non-gaming friends are talking about it, and one texted me while I was typing this paragraph asking if they should snag it. Truly it is the flavor of the… week? Month? It’s hard to say. But this sort of out-of-the-blue hit has become one of the primary aspirational goals of smaller developers, for whom even half a million sales would be a huge success.

The concept of the game is easily grasped: you’re exploring a mysterious island populated by Pals, which are plainly dollar-store Pokémon. As you build your base, you capture and deploy Pals to act as your escorts and your workforce. Leave a few Lamballs and Cattivas chopping wood, mining, and tending the berry plantation while you and your Eikthyrdeer roam the island, mowing down low-level Pals and human poachers. All the while you steadily climb a tech tree, going from stone axe to metal spear to crossbow to assault rifle.

Seemingly every aspect of the game is lifted wholesale from another. The gameplay systems of the survival exploration genre will be familiar to anyone who has played previous viral hits Valheim and V Rising. Climbing and gliding are lifted from Breath of the Wild. Automating your base and production is a staple since the likes of Factorio and Timberborn. The creature-management aspect was pioneered by Pokémon, of course, and refined in games like Cassette Beasts and Monster Sanctuary.

Screenshot of my humble Pal farm. Yes, I gave the injured guy a break.

But when the game released into Steam’s Early Access (and Xbox Game Pass, albeit in a less playable form), players expecting to find a trash fire akin to recent rug-pull The Day Before were surprised to find, if not a masterpiece by any estimation, a surprisingly cohesive and fun game with an addictive and propulsive loop. None of the parts are as good as the games they’re pilfered from, but they don’t fall apart in practice — as games with far greater budgets and aspirations frequently do.

Sure, the graphics are uninspired, features are missing, and the bugs are plentiful. But having played some 8 hours myself, I can tell you it’s definitely fun and compelling despite all that. And if the creature-management aspect of the game doesn’t quite reach the refinement of modern Pokémon games, the fundamental idea — a large, open world with free-roaming creatures to capture — is more or less exactly what people have been begging for. (That is, if you are OK with killing countless wild Pals and enslaving those you spare — which, admittedly, not everyone is.)

But certainly the most “controversial” aspect of the game is the Pals themselves. Some seem so clearly “inspired” by actual Pokémon that it’s amazing Pocketpair hasn’t received a cease-and-desist letter.

A legion of armchair lawyers is currently litigating the case on X, drawing up comprehensive comparisons between character designs and speculating about legal consequences to come. Some of Palword’s particularly controversial lookalikes include Anubis (Lucario), Verdash (Cinderace) and even a fan-made version of Delphox, as X users have pointed out.

Others are rushing to Palworld’s defense, highlighting similarities between Pokémon and Dragon Quest or even Pokémon, Palworld and the ancient Egyptian mythology that appears to have inspired designs across both games.

As accusations over stolen character designs fly, another parallel yet thus far evidence-free controversy is brewing. Pointing to the Palworld’s derivative creature designs and previous comments by Pocketpair’s CEO, some of Palworld’s critics insist that its creators leaned on generative AI to draw up the game’s virtual menagerie.

While there’s no hard evidence that this is the case, it’s not impossible that AI tools were used to generate Pokémon-like creature designs. In 2022, a viral text-to-image generator powered by Stable Diffusion allowed anyone to craft their own Pokémon in seconds, so the idea has certainly been out there for a while.

Palworld builds momentum

Image Credits: Pocketpair

At the time of writing, 975,000 concurrent players were curious enough about Palworld to dive in on Steam, where the game currently tops the charts. Given the its presence on Playstation and Xbox Game Pass platforms, you can expect the real number of simultaneous Palworld players is considerably higher.

Not coincidentally, the unlikely hit comes at a time when the Pokémon series is largely seen as stagnant, in spite of enduring love for the franchise. In the last few years, developers big and small have put out massive hits that reinvent genres, fine-tune combat to perfection and hand the wheel (sometimes literally) over to gamers themselves with clever building systems. Meanwhile, the the main Pokémon series has barely varied from its original formula established in the mid-90s — a revelation then, and an aging, clunky experience hanging onto nostalgia by a thread almost 30 years later.

The modern Pokémon games may not bring much to the table, but the franchise’s many fans are as loyal as ever. Plenty of people who have collected Pokémon own pocket monsters for years have flocked to Palworld, in spite of criticisms that the surprise hit is a blatant knockoff chock full of thinly veiled stolen character designs.

Palword certainly didn’t invent the genre of “catch cute little dudes, assemble them into a team and make them fight,” but all good games are inspired by something. Some of the most popular modern games have lifted a gameplay concept from another popular title outright, refining it into a sleeker more mainstream version (Fortnite’s relationship with PUBG is a prime example here).

Still, the criticism that Palworld knocked off some of Pokémon’s original monster designs might be enough to deter diehard fans eager to go to bat for their favorite franchise.

As Palworld’s popularity soars and the debate over the game’s inspirations intensifies, players are about to be able to take the Pokémon parallels to the next level. A mod that transforms the game’s creatures into their Pokémon equivalents and turns the player character into Ash Ketchum is apparently due out on Tuesday.

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