“Pokémon with guns”: Palworld’s runaway Steam success should be a lesson for Game Freak


Pocketpair

I’m whacking at a rock as the sun sets. The game is telling me that I am cold and hungry. But I need to collect enough resources to make a Pal Sphere to catch some Pals so I can assign them to work at my base and gather even more resources.

I am in the very opening minutes of Palworld, a game made by an obscure Japanese indie studio named Pocketpair. Some combination of algorithmic providence and word of mouth helped the game score some impressive achievements in its first Early Access weekend: over 5 million copies sold and nearly 1.3 million concurrent Steam users playing the game, beating out the high-watermarks for big-name games like Cyberpunk 2077Elden Ring, and Baldur’s Gate 3. 

The game’s success means it has already been through multiple cycles of minor Internet controversy, mainly related to circumstantial evidence that its monster designs may have been created by generative AI or from the actual 3D models used in the Pokémon games.

I’m not here to rule one way or the other on this, except to say that I find the accusations of model theft more convincing than the generative AI accusations; making fake monsters in the style of Pokémon has been a pastime for many budding DeviantArt and Tumblr artists for years, long before generative AI could ever have had anything to do with it. Pocketpair CEO Takuro Mizobe has reportedly claimed that the game “has cleared legal reviews.”

The secret to Palworld‘s rise may be no more complicated than the three-word summary you’ll see over and over in coverage of it: “Pokémon with guns.” Countless parodies have found humor (and cash) in adding darkness to the bright, sanitized world of kids’ toys and entertainment, from Garbage Pail Kids to the infamously vitriolic and universal campaign against Barney the dinosaur. Entire YouTube channels have been built around doing this to Pokémon and other games.

I’ve only played the first few hours of a single-player Palworld campaign, enough to get a handle on the game’s basic mechanics and its art style but not much else. It doesn’t seem like it’s doing anything tremendously original or ambitious—it’s built on the kinds of resource-gathering, item-crafting, base-building, and survival gameplay loops that have served as a foundation for countless other games. And whatever you think of the monster designs, the rest of the game’s art has a bland “default game engine asset” look to it. Overall, things work well enough to give the game a busted charm that probably works in its favor rather than against it (see: me holding an axe, my hands clipping through my character’s stomach because the character creator let me make my torso too wide).

The way the base-building parts of the game and the monster-catching parts interact is sort of interesting. As you catch monsters in your Poké balls Pal Spheres, you can carry some with you for battling and exploring à la regular Pokémon game, but you can assign others to work your base, where they’ll build things and perform other duties as directed. Each Pal has a specific set of activities they can perform while assigned to your base, so the more you want to automate, the more kinds of Pals you’ll want to catch, and the more you’ll want to level up your base so more Pals can work there simultaneously.



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