Is ‘Palworld’ Plagiarism, Parody, Or Just Stupid?
1:18 PM EST on January 23, 2024
For as long as I can remember, "Pokemon with guns" has been a meme. It speaks to a certain brand of edgelord internet user: Why not take a children's franchise and make it freakin' epic? Wouldn't that be hilarious? That appears to be one of the guiding design principles behind Palworld, the newest release from Pocketpair, which somewhat inexplicably went from a curio announced in 2021 to the most popular video game in the world over the weekend, peaking at 1.1 million concurrent players on Steam and, as of Tuesday morning, reaching 6 million copies in sales. It's holding strong as the most-watched game on Twitch as well, with over 300,000 viewers.
It's not particularly surprising that Palworld immediately picked up a fanbase. That's because it is another entry into the genre of survival games that have recently become very popular. I played a lot of V Rising, which was Palworld with the monsters replaced by vampires. The world of Ark is filled with dinosaurs. Valheim is cartoon-y and set in the Nordic region. Rust is unique for how difficult and player-unfriendly it is. There are plenty of games in this genre that have successfully found their own corner of the market.
Palworld adheres to the typical survival game formula: a loop of "gather materials, build bigger buildings, repeat," with some combat thrown in here and there. Upon being dropped into the Palpagos Islands, the player character is told to find some wood to build a crafting table, from which they can make wooden foundations for a house, a bed, a campfire, and other such wilderness components. The big twist with Palworld comes with having to craft Pal Spheres, which are Poke Balls in all but name. The world of Palworld is filled to the brim with cute little monsters (called, rather obviously, Pals), and you must capture them to use them as both combat companions and workers in your base. I caught a Cattiva, a cat-like Pal, and sent him to work at my own base, wherein he just banged on rock deposits until he got tired. After a quick rest, there he went again. Though players start with wooden sticks and stone axes, they quickly progress through the path of human history until they get the ability to craft guns, and they can both use those guns personally and give them to their Pals. Pocketpair bet on there being a lot of gamers out there who want to give AK-47s to cute little guys, and that bet paid off.
The success of this particular formula has made a lot of people angry. Once Palworld became a hit, a lot of people started noticing that the game's monsters bear more than a passing resemblance to Pokemon. Countless Twitter threads have popped up since the game's popularity exploded on Friday, demonstrating just how close these similarities are. In some cases, it feels like Pocketpair took the base model of Pokemon monsters, changed the color scheme and tweaked a couple of rough edges, then released them into Palpagos.
Is this plagiarism, parody, or something else? The game seems like a pretty obvious parody of Pokemon at first glance, but that interpretation is undermined by something that Pocketpair CEO Takuro Mizobe said back in a 2021 interview with The Gamer, when he was asked about the whole "Pokemon with guns" thing:
This is not a popular meme in Japan. Fortunately, it could be a lucky thing to have the meme of Pokemon with guns, but we totally didn’t intend it. Pocketpair tried to make the game totally different from Pokemon.
The thing about parody is that there has to be some sort of artistic intent behind it in order to be successful. Strapping guns to a bunch of Pokemon can be read as a satirization, even an unintentional one, of the popular Nintendo franchise, but in this case it just lands as basic and lazy game design. It's an idea you'd expect to find in a fan mod.
Evidence of this game's lazy construction can be found elsewhere, too. The game's crafting menus are almost a one-for-one replica of Ark's UI, while the aesthetic of the world melds Pokemon with the bright color scheme found in Breath of the Wild. There are even obvious rips of Elden Ring environments here.
And yet, it's not all that surprising that Palworld has been such a success. "Pokemon with guns" is a meme for a reason, and game developers can get a lot of mileage out of targeting a specific demographic of gamers who still watch South Park and think giving Pikachu a bazooka is the peak of satire. "It's based," goes the rallying cry for games that scratch this particular itch.
This type of game was never going to be fun for me, but I still gave it a fair shot. In addition to experiencing some technical issues—I was apparently playing the wrong version: I utilized Game Pass on the Xbox app on my computer, which has been found to be "3-6 months" behind, a problem not found on the more popular Steam app version—my time in Palpagos felt wasted.
So much of what makes survival games appealing, even to someone who is decidedly not a survival game player like me, is the tension between the world and the player. In theory, every new corner of the map should bring danger and force the player to be innovative. In practice, the resource grinding and base-building here felt like an afterthought. I'm not sure how exciting a developer can make hitting a tree with an axe over and over to collect wood, but Palworld is seemingly content with just keeping it at a basic level. Sure, there are bigger resource nodes to collect, and new and more interesting things to craft with those resources, but the gameplay loop left me cold.
So, then, the only real appeal comes from the monsters, and the juxtaposition of their cute models alongside the gun-powered violence. Does the question of "plagiarism or parody?" matter in the face of what Palworld offers? Not really, if sales and player counts are to be believed. Even if the game fizzles out, as a lot of these flavor-of-the-month games tend to—Remember Fall Guys? How about Among Us?—Palworld feels like another low moment for the gaming industry. If this kind of game, a shameless rip-off at worst or a totally hollow parody at best, can be rewarded with millions of players, then you can expect similar helpings of slop to be served up in the future. Video game developers are constantly looking for ways to pump out inexpensive crap (the $7 million it cost to make this game pales in comparison to AAA big budget games; just for reference, Cyberpunk 2077 took over $400 million to develop) that nevertheless turns a profit. Palworld is the latest example of how little creative effort needs to be put into that process.