Palworld – the brand new, sort-of-Pokémon, open-world, third-person, shooting, action adventure, crafting, survival, animal collecting, and other popular buzzwords – game launched on Steam and Xbox on January 19. It immediately blew up, selling six million copies in four days and instantly becoming a force to be reckoned with while simultaneously opening the floodgates of discourse surrounding intellectual property theft in video games. Since being revealed two years ago, Palworld – created by a developer named Pocketpair – has been commonly referred to as “Pokémon with guns” by anyone who has looked at it for more than three seconds. But as people dig deeper, they are discovering that Palworld is both a game that does enough to distance itself from Pokémon mechanically while also being a little too close for comfort to Pokémon artistically. So let’s dig into this controversy and figure out exactly what’s happening with Palworld.
Palworld is a hit for completely obvious reasons: it kitbashes a bunch of tremendously successful genres and previously proven gameplay mechanics under a warm and inviting art style for all ages. It’s got the third-person gunplay from Fortnite, the crafting and survival of Ark, and a ton of extremely Pokémon-looking — but not quite exactly Pokémon — animals from Game Freak’s beloved series. It also satisfies the lifelong dream of anyone who wanted to see Pokémon fire machine guns. It’s the game equivalent of a cooking video where a mom puts McDonalds french fries, Kraft Mac and Cheese, and Ore-Ida Tater Tots into a bunch of Old El Paso soft tortilla shells before serving it to her kids. It’s crowd pleasing junk food, but it’s also comfort food and it doesn’t really matter how innovative or original it all is if the end result sort of tastes good.
There are several less obvious reasons why Palworld is such a huge success. For one, on PC, where Palworld is seeing the overwhelming bulk of its sales, you can’t legally purchase and play a Pokémon game. You can boot up an ancient rom or jump through some hoops and emulate a modern Pokémon game, but Pokémon simply has no presence on the Steam store or similar platforms since the Pokémon Company has opted instead to only release Pokémon games on Nintendo platforms and mobile devices. There are similar games, like Cassette Beasts and TemTem, but there’s still a massive, largely untapped market for Pokémon games on PC that isn’t being frequently served and that market is clearly hungry for a thing they can’t have. And honestly, most of those people simply don’t care that Palworld features some especially derivative Pokémon designs – they simply want a Pokémon-ish experience on PC that the Pokémon company won’t give to them, so another company did. Palworld serves that audience while also throwing in a bunch of other gameplay ideas and themes that are already super popular on PC so it’s not hard to see why it was an instant hit.
Then there’s the more cynical explanation that accounts for a smaller but still valid group: Pokémon fans that are helping Palworld become a hit because they think the Pokémon Company has a modern history of shipping Pokémon games that haven’t evolved on the formula, run poorly on the Switch, and don’t get the patches and updates they need to improve. After all, competition breeds innovation and while Palworld being a huge hit won’t immediately force the Pokémon Company to add assault rifles to the next Pokémon game, finally having a big competitor on its turf may inspire it to innovate on a series that many fans believe has grown stale and occasionally phoned-in over the years. That’s what this group hopes, at least.
But even pushing all of those factors aside, one of the big reasons that Palworld keeps selling more and more is because people love it. As of the time of writing there are nearly 45,000 reviews for Palworld on Steam and 93% of them are positive. That means Palworld is a great game in the eyes of players and confident word of mouth around games like this goes a really long way. Countless established and popular game franchises have launched on PC, riddled with technical or networking issues that take weeks or even months to be fixed, and had their user scores tanked by frustrated audiences who couldn’t properly play a product they paid for. Palworld has its own share of launch issues, of course, but it’s also an early access game and the audience seems to be forgiving of them in favor of the larger experience which is generally well received so far.
Finally, there’s a much tinier but not insignificant factor I also wanna throw in here: people think that since Palworld is so similar to Pokémon it could get legally removed from the internet at any given moment. Pushed by that perceived ticking clock, they wanna get in while they still can. People want what they can’t have or might not be able to have soon, a concept you’ll be familiar with if you tried to buy toilet paper in April of 2020. Given its success, close approximation to Pokémon, Pokémon’s corporate connection to Nintendo, and Nintendo’s long history of cease and desisting anything and everything remotely related to their intellectual properties, you probably wouldn’t be unwarranted to expect Palworld to go the way of the Doduo bird by the end of the month. That was a bad joke and I am sorry but I had to get it out of my system…
Anyway, Nintendo is a powerfully litigious and thoroughly protective company when it comes to its characters and games. It owns a third of the Pokémon Company and they’ve spent decades working together on projects, leading many to wonder when Nintendo will drop a massive lawsuit or cease and desist on the creators of Palworld and shut down the game for good. However, Palworld is in a uniquely different spot than the typical fan made game that Nintendo tends to pull down from the internet the second it hears about it. Nintendo regularly takes legal action against projects that use original Nintendo game assets or even things like names, logos, and characters. It takes down unlicensed PC ports, HD remakes it didn’t create itself, sues rom distribution sites, fan art pages, and more, to the point that it’s become a running joke that “Nintendo Ninjas” will strike and destroy every time any remotely interesting but definitely unlicensed Nintendo fan project pops up. Just last month it got a PC port of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening pulled from the internet for infringing on Nintendo’s properties, and that wasn’t even a game you could legally buy on Steam. Given that history and Palworld’s success, you might be justified in expecting the ninjas to show up and start slashing throats at any given moment.
But Palworld doesn’t use Pokémon sprites or models ripped directly from Pokémon games, or music or sounds or characters or menus, right? It mostly just uses a bunch of stuff that feels really, really close – like, dangerously close – to Pokémon without actually being Pokémon. Seeing them side by side it’s pretty undeniable how much they have in common, like seeing a box of Fruit Rounds cereal next to a box of Fruit Loops. Both are loops, or, uh, rounds, and the weird bird mascot character looks infinitely more depressed than the one on the Fruit Loops box. But if your store only has Fruit Rounds and you’re really craving a bowl of small, colorful breakfast circles being championed by an exotic bird on a bright red box (super specific craving, by the way) what are you gonna do, buy Cheerios? Or Tasteeos? Nah, you’re probably going home with the Fruit Rounds. Palworld is an amalgamation of ideas, none of which are wholly original, but none of them are directly dragged and dropped from a Pokémon game’s engine. And so, it’s hard to say if Nintendo and the Pokémon company have a legal leg to stand on here, even if they wanted to.
After all, is making a video game clearly inspired by other video games a crime? If it were, we’d have to throw a lot of video games in the garbage.
Knowing and coming to terms with the fact that no idea is original when interacting with art means you can recognize the two major branching paths these things tend to go down: did this product improve or evolve on the idea that inspired it, or did it just replicate it, often shamelessly? If you’ve played a game on a mobile phone in the last 15 years you’re probably familiar with a company named Gameloft. Gameloft made knockoffs of popular console games for a mobile audience who otherwise couldn’t play them on their phones. Games like Gangstar, a Grand Theft Auto clone; Modern Combat, a Modern Warfare clone; Nova, a Halo-slash-Crysis clone; and Shadow Guardian, an Uncharted clone. (That last one is particularly shameless.) It’s really no different than what the straight-to-home-video ‘mockbuster’ studios like The Asylum has been doing with popular movies for ages now. This weekend, why not unwind with a classic movie like Transmorphers, Snakes on a Train, Alien vs Hunter, or Jurassic Domination? Or maybe even check in on everyone’s favorite globetrotting treasure hunter Alan Quartermain and the Spear(..?) of Destiny.
Is there a huge difference between Alan Quartermain, Gameloft’s Shadow Guardian, and Naughty Dog’s original Uncharted series? Not really. They all heavily lift large chunks of inspiration and source material from the original Indiana Jones movies. Uncharted wouldn’t exist without those films, or at the very least it wouldn’t exist without Tomb Raider, which also wouldn’t exist without those films. But Indiana Jones wouldn’t exist without being inspired by old pulp comics, the Doc Savage novel series, and (ironically) the original Alan Quartermain books, to name a few. So you can realistically trace almost everything back to an idea that came before it and the lines frequently start to blur.
As for the games Pocketpair made before Palworld, the studio’s entire history can be summed up with the “we have blank at home” meme. One of its biggest games before Palworld is called Craftopia, an open-world action adventure and crafting game where an elf-ish character fights bootleg Moblins, Bokoblins, and other various enemies that look remarkably similar to Zelda enemies while also paragliding, building vehicles and contraptions, and doing the signature run up the mountain as the camera pans over the whole kingdom thing from Breath of the Wild. Craftopia does do a few things differently to set itself apart, but it’s all pretty shameless stuff on the surface. The paraglider specifically feels almost identical to Breath of the Wild.
Then there’s the upcoming Pocketpair title Nevergrave, which seems heavily inspired by the smash hit Metroidvania game Hollow Knight, right down to the color palette, combat, and traversal. Again, it adds enough new gameplay elements into the mix to kind of stand on its own, but if there’s an argument that Palworld deserves to copy Pokémon because Pokémon games are becoming stale and phoned in every year, can the same really be said for the Hollow Night and Zelda franchises? Not quite.
While describing Palworld’s similarities to Pokémon, I find myself talking about how such similarities are“on the surface”. Most of the controversy is around what people can immediately see and recognize as being something that looks like Pokémon. Looking at both Pokémon and Palworld designs as they’re running in their respective games reveals some similarities but nothing that feels like a specific one to one copy. But some folks have started to look under the surface at Palworld’s creature designs – specifically the way its 3D models are built – and that’s where a bunch of smoking guns start to show up. Twitter user byofrog took several 3D models from Palworld and overlapped them with 3D models from Pokémon and found a bunch with proportions that line up directly. The results are – at least on the surface – pretty damning. Now, this could all be a huge coincidence, but coming from a studio with a history of borrowing visuals, gameplay mechanics, and more from already established franchises, the benefit of the doubt starts to diminish rapidly.
Pocketpair’s CEO Takuro Mizobe issued a response to the accusations, saying “While we have received various opinions about Palworld, it is important to note that the supervision of all materials related to Palworld is conducted by a team, including myself. I bear the responsibility for the produced materials.” That’s a fairly empty, nebulous statement that is mostly just saying “we look at everything before we put it in our game”, which doesn’t exactly confirm the accusations or deny them. It’s saying that several humans are involved in the art asset approval process before they become interactive elements in a product you can purchase and play, but it’s not saying anything about the creative process that gets them to the approval table to begin with.
As of right this second, there’s certainly a lot of smoke but not necessarily a fire. But as people continue to dig deeper into Palworld, who knows what kind of stuff they’ll dredge up. We’re sort of in uncharted territory here (or Alan Quartermain territory if you prefer) but we’ve also seen this kind of thing happen tons of times before in the great medium of video games. We know how Nintendo and Pokémon’s legal team operate, but we know that it’s totally feasible to create and sell a Pokémon-inspired game legally without getting cease and desisted to death.