Updated 02-02-2024 with information regarding The Pokémon Company “investigating” Palworld and updated sales figures.
We’re really enjoying the zany, if not outright bonkers Palworld at the moment. And it seems we’re not the only ones. With an astonishing 12 million copies sold on Steam alone according to the developers, it seems to have struck a chord. But to say there’s some Palworld controversy would be an understatement. Some of the game’s success is no doubt due to the striking familiarity with a rather well-known franchise about catching little creatures and exploiting them for sport. And although it’s tempting to decry developer Pocket Pair, Inc. for not just wearing Palworld‘s influence on its sleeves but emblazoning it across its forehead, the situation is more nuanced than that. Palworld is a great game in its own right, and something like this was coming. If anything, Palworld has evolved what has become a very stale Pokémon formula.
Palworld Controversy: A Wild Ditto Appears
Just glance at any screenshot or key art from Palworld, and the Pokémon comparisons are immediately obvious. Even my wife, who has almost no gaming or pop culture knowledge, was surprised that the latest Pokémon game included a cuddly creature with a gatling gun. There’s simply no way that Palworld developer Pocket Pair, Inc. wasn’t heavily inspired by Pokémon designs when creating their Pals, as the creatures are called in Palworld. Heck, you even catch Pals in Pal Spheres, which is quite blatantly just another way of saying Poké Ball.
In fact, the Palworld controversy runs deeper than that. Debate is raging online about whether developer Pocket Pair, Inc. even used Pokémon meshes to design their Pals, which absolutely would fall on the side of plagiarism. It has gotten to the point that The Pokémon Company has said they’re “investigating” Palworld for potential breaches of copyright. It’s hard to imagine this isn’t anything more than lip service, however. There’s no way The Pokémon Company won’t have been aware of Palworld prior to release.
Let’s also not forget that the video game industry is rife with games that veer closer to outright copying than taking inspiration. Mobile gaming, for example, is flooded with blatant clones and rip-offs. But there are more polished, creatively aspirational games that have followed a formula almost to the letter. Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas, for example, is rather reductively called a Zelda clone. And while it does very clearly imitate Nintendo’s legendary series, enough effort was put in to make it a good video game in its own right, so nobody really cares.
Your Pal is Evolving!
Although the idea of catching, breeding, and battling Pals is almost identical to Pokémon, there’s a lot more to Palworld. For starters, it’s very much a survival game. Searching for myriad resources? Check. In-depth crafting? Check. Base building? Check. It’s a little janky and unpolished at times, it’s all present and correct here.
There’s a greater focus on base building and existing in the world than has ever been the case in Pokémon games. Pokémon titles are more about adventure, with the obvious focus on “catching ’em all”. Palworld, on the other hand, offers a less-prescribed world in which it’s up to you to create your own stories.
There’s also the not-insignificant difference that the cute and whimsical Pals wield bloody great guns. Although it seems like a relatively superficial difference at first, dig a little deeper and it’s more than that. Palworld embraces the darkly-humorous, if not downright dark notion of enslaving these poor creatures and exploiting them for your own ends. Palworld‘s ironic tone is actually more fitting for your creature-enslaving antics than Pokémon, with The Pokémon Company’s need to keep it kid-friendly, ever dared to flirt with.
Gotta Milk ‘Em All!
In short, Pocket Pair, Inc. has been really canny blending two very popular sub-genres together. Taking the survival genre and adding in the creature collecting dimension sounds like a blatantly obvious success ploy… in hindsight.
But I’m quite sure that Palworld wouldn’t have been quite as successful as it has been if the door hadn’t been left wide open for it. The Pokémon Company, and specifically developer Game Freak, aren’t exactly renowned for their ingenuity. In fact, if you were being harsh, you might even say they were completely apathetic when it comes to innovation.
For too long now, Game Freak has pumped out poorly optimized carbon copies of previous console Pokémon games, safe in the knowledge that the rabid fanbase will lap them up regardless. Admittedly, Game Freak flirted with innovation with the surprisingly good Pokemon Legends: Arceus. Arceus did borrow liberally from established open-world tropes, but fine. At least it was evolving the desperately stale Pokemon formula.
No Shortcuts in Evolution
Understandably, there’s a lot of Palworld controversy at the moment. In the meantime, the game is in the process of demonstrating just how successful the creature-collection sub-genre can be when you take cues from other popular genres. It’s easy to criticize because Pocket Pair, Inc. for being too blatant with its inspiration, but I’d argue that’s selling Palworld short. It’s whimsical, janky, and utterly insane, but it knows it. It doesn’t try to pretend to be anything it isn’t. It’s not a masterpiece of game design or interactive storytelling, but it is damn good fun. Funnily enough, the same used to be said about Pokémon video games. Although it’s not possible to evolve your Pals in Palworld, maybe, just maybe, Palworld has evolved the Pokémon formula. Only time will tell.