In less than 2 weeks, the small Japanese game developer Pocketpair brought in at least $360 million in sales for its smash hit Pokémon-inspired survival game with a twisted edge, Palworld. The game has benefited greatly from publicity sparked by various controversies surrounding its development and specifically its use of extremely similar ideas and characters to Pokémon.

So far, Palworld has sold over 12 million copies on Steam and attracted over 7 million Xbox players since its January 19th early access launch.

Developed under the leadership of CEO Takuro Mizobe, Palworld drops players onto islands filled with creatures called “Pals”. These Pals strongly resemble Pokémons in design and function – players can battle, capture, and train them. However, the similarities mostly end there. Palworld diverges into darker territory as Pals can also be weaponized, forced into manual labor, or even harvested for meat and parts.

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By blending the popular task of monster-collecting popularized by Nintendo’s flagship videogame while incorporating more mature and adult themes along with new and interesting mechanics, Palworld has effectively tapped into an underserved demographic of older Pokémon fans seeking a grittier, more grown-up take on the classic formula.

Whatever they have done seems to be working as the game has amassed over 19 million players globally and counting. The strategy will do doubt become extremely popular with other developers looking to make a successful game, assuming Nintendo doesn’t sue Pocketpair for every penny it owns (which is a lot to assume from notoriously lawsuit-happy Nintendo).

Gamers Love Palworld and Its Developers Have Made Millions Already

On Steam alone, Palworld has grossed an estimated $164.6 million in under a week based on its $29.99 early access price, Dot Esports calculations suggest. It made closer to $400 million over its less than 2-week lifespan with 19 million players total between Steam (PC) and Xbox. Considering that the estimated development budget for the game is close to $7 million, Palworld is easily one of the most profitable games of all time.

At one point, Palworld peaked at nearly 3 million concurrent Steam players according to Xbox, making it the most-played game on the platform. Amazingly, it’s surpassed Fortnite as the most popular game on the Xbox too. Its staying power is apparent as it still averages over 800,000+ daily users.

Palworld’s Steam trajectory mirrors other viral sensations like Valheim and Rust. Its slave labor themes are also reminiscent of 2022’s sleeper hit V Rising. However, its Pokémon inspiration makes for an even more explosive combination as seen by the meteoric player counts.

With success comes scrutiny, and Palworld is under heavy fire on multiple fronts. The most prevalent accusation is that its Pals brazenly copy Pokémon designs and it’s pretty hard to deny.

Comparisons on social media show Pal models overlapping perfectly with Pokémon. While no lawsuits have been filed yet, The Pokemon Company has taken notice of the game’s popularity and may be ready to take legal action.

Palworld and pokemon compared
Palworld’s Grizzbolt (left) and Pokemon’s Electrabuzz (right)

“We will investigate any acts of infringement of intellectual property rights related to Pokémon and take appropriate action”, a statement from the Pokemon company published in late January reads.

Pocketpair and CEO Mizobe have refuted these claims. In an interview with a Japanese site, Mizobe said “We make our games very seriously, and we have absolutely no intention of infringing upon the intellectual property of other companies.”

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Industry developers argue that Palworld’s creatures so closely mimic Pokémon that they had to be traced or ripped. However, concrete proof remains elusive for now. Pocketpair seems to have been careful in ensuring that none of its characters are too close to be considered copyright infringement but it’s sure close in quite a few cases. Even without exact copies, the developer could be on the hook for infringement if a judge rules that the game is too similar.

Palworld’s Jormuntide (left) and Pokemon’s Gyrados (right)

Allegations also claim that Palworld leverages AI generative models to construct its characters and world. Mizobe has shown interest in AI game development across posts and interviews. Pocketpair also launched an AI art game at some point and this has fueled the suspicions that the technology could have been used to create Palworld as well.

However, Palworld isn’t labeled as an AI-generated game on Steam. This is a mandatory disclosure that the platform enforces for titles that have been created by using the technology. Mizobe commented that the company’s developers and artists have received “slanderous comments” for their involvement with the game.

Ethical Issues Have Emerged as Well Amid Presence of Disturbing Themes

Criticism has extended toward Palworld’s gameplay due to its alleged lack of ethical standards. The animal rights group PETA denounced features like Pals eating meat and expressed their desire for a “vegan guide”.

Players can also reportedly capture and sell human characters for parts. These actions have been categorized as utterly depraved, even for a video game. Consequently, some call it a vessel promoting cruelty more than meaningful satire.

Between copying beloved characters and normalizing potentially objectionable themes, it’s clear that Palworld has no intention to shy away from controversy. Rather than stunting growth, these many controversies have contributed to fueling the hype to keep the game at the top of the charts.

What’s Next for Palworld?

With bugs addressed in frequent hotfixes, Palworld runs surprisingly smoothly as an early-access game. It plans to launch properly in 2024 with extensive upcoming content like raids, PvP, side quests, and mod support. The most anticipated feature is crossplay, allowing Xbox and PC gamers to team up.

By cultivating an actively engaged player base, Pocketpair seems to be in it for the long haul. They continue stoking excitement with events and contests across social media that attract both creators and gamers alike.

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Barring any catastrophic litigation (which is certainly possible), Palworld is poised to be a mainstay survival game next to entries like Ark, Rust, and Terraria. Assuming, of course, that it manages to keep up with players’ ethical lines in terms of good taste.

Its stratospheric reception begs the question – does Palworld represent the beginning of a bold new era of derivative games transformed to cater to more mature audiences? Or will legal boundaries ultimately put constraints on this unchecked borrowing of others’ people creative work?

For now, the gaming world can’t peel its eyes away from the virtual car crash that is Palworld. Audiences just keep swarming to see these twisted Pokémon knock-offs armed with guns against their best judgment. Regardless of some groups’ ethical reservations, Palworld shows no signs of stopping its wild ride up the charts anytime soon.