Palworld — Making Bank, Artistically Bankrupt

From controversy-bait to a frightening glimpse at a possible post-originality gaming-sphere

Palworld — Making Bank, Artistically Bankrupt

Palworld has truly reached "phenomenon" status in the gaming sphere over the last few weeks. It launched on Steam on 18th January and by the end of the month it had surpassed 19 million downloads between the Steam and Xbox stores.

This, at an opening cost of £22.49, which is a very hefty price tag for an early access game by a studio that I could have sworn nobody had even heard of until 3 weeks ago. Now they're all the major gaming media outlets will talk about. The Radio Times reckons, as of 4th February, that with that price (it has gone up slightly since launch by 1.1% to £24.99) and ignoring those who have access to the game through an Xbox Games Pass subscription, the game will have pulled in over £250 million for the Japanese developer.

Of course, the initial interest in the game was in large part due to its controversy. The game seems like a direct dare to the legal department of Nintendo; the game taking "inspiration" from Pokémon both in concept of the lovable, capturable, and battleable creatures (one could even describe them as "pocket monsters"...), and more egregiously in the design of those creatures, basically none of which have a shred of originality to them and can all best be described as "not-Luxray" and "barely-legally-distinct Wooloo". It also heavily lifts its aesthetics and UI from other Nintendo darling Breath of the Wild, its primary gameplay loop and multiplayer survival craft-em-up genre from Ark Survival Evolved. Game-critic veteran Yahtzee noticed some of the UI and level design was also lifted from Ark:

Yeah, all crafting survival games will hit similar notes, in that you spend the first few hours running around punching trees, but even with that in mind the similarities are uncanny; the environments look the same, right down to the mysterious glowing tower in the distance, even the GUIs look similar, and they're similarly terrible, with hundreds of tiny details sprinkled across the screen and important button prompts small, barely noticeable, and clashing with the background. — Yahtzee

Yahtzee touts the base-building where you enslave your various captured Pals to operate various machines to automate crafting as potentially the most interesting (and jankiest) part of the game, but I'd argue even that is just aping Satisfactory with extra steps (and animal rights violations).

Now, it is highly likely that if Nintendo feel they've got a legal standing to sue, they'll throw the book, followed by the bookcase, at Pocket Pair. We already know they’re looking at the possibility. I'm not here to defend Nintendo's IP, I'm sure they've got plenty of very scary, clever, and expensive lawyers to do that for them. Nor am I one who would expect to be writing in favour of taking a hardline stance on copyright law; usually I'd be the first to be writing about copyright law abuses, copyright companies' abuse of YouTube's copyright flagging system, or the many ridiculous, frivolent music copyright cases that have surfaced in recent years.

No, I'm not personally all that concerned with the legality of Palworld's hodgepodgery, but the meteoric rise of Palworld, I think, bodes ill for those of us who are out here advocating for games-as-art. It is one thing to be derivative; deriving even substantial portions of your game doesn't necessarily mean that it is without merit. Satisfactory, mentioned earlier, can very fairly be described as "what if Factorio, but 3D?", and in realising that, Epic — much as it pains me to say it given how I loathe the company's general shadiness — created a really good riff on the niche Factorio opened. Similarly,Dyson Sphere Program asked "what if Factorio, but interplanetary?" and, again, produced a really remarkable game from the idea. In a moment of inter-game inspiration coming full-circle, the much-awaited Space Age expansion for Factorio is also taking the idea of creating interplanetary logistics and returning it to the idea's origins.

Palworld is not one of these cases. It has been oft-described as "Pokémon with guns", but it could just as easily be called "Satisfactory with Pokémon" or "Ark via Breath of the Wild". It isn't just one of these descriptors, it is all of them simultaneously. This doesn't make it complex, it just shows the breadth as well as the depth of the artistic theft. It doesn't take inspiration and create a new game from it, it is a collection of inspirations sewn into the same sack and asked to play nice. The comparison to Frankenstein's Monster has been made a few times and, unlike the game's assorted gameplay loops, the analogy fits well here: this is a game consisting of the hacked apart bodies of other good games — games with a clear artistic vision and crafted by passionate development teams — stitched together into a shambling homunculus and zapped into life by hype and controversy.

But, despite what some critics would have you believe, the public aren't, on the whole, tasteless — so why are they so willing to eat? Yahtzee says it's desperation for a half-decent Pokémon game after the decidedly tepid reception of recent entries, but I argue it is instead because Palworld isn't outright garbage (ludically speaking, anyway). Technically, the game has been put together in a very inoffensive manner. To rather forcibly extend my metaphor; Palworld is not a botched meal, it is instead what would happen if you tried assembling a meal out of several pre-made plates of curry, pasta, ice cream, and tiramisu — each individual element is probably going to taste good, but it's in the combination of elements that you're going to have a bad time. This is a very similar experience to what players got in Pocket Pair’s previous game Craftopia, which was also basically Breath of the Wild meets Satisfactory meets Pokémon — even its website has the tagline: “Monsters, Gotta Catch ‘em All!” — which is, ya know, certainly brazen! Pocket Pair can add their own studio to the list of companies whose homework they’ve cribbed.

I think a lot of it is also precisely because of the controversy: there's no such thing as bad publicity after all, as controversial games have proven time and again — just look at Hogwarts Legacy being the second highest grossing game on Steam after Baldur's game-of-the-year Gate 3, despite that game's many controversies. The other thing Palworld has going for it is that aforementioned breadth; with base-building, survival-crafting, Zelda-like exploration, Genshin-adjacent combat, and a great glowing Elden-Ring Erdtree plonked in the middle of the map with mysterious lore implications, one can easily imagine that there is "something for everyone" within Palworld, which was highly likely enough to get many onboard.

I can only hope that Yahtzee is right and that this game is just "flavour of the month" because if it manages to retain the attention capital it has accrued over the last couple of weeks, I fear for what precedents it might set in the eyes of other developers willing to chance some copyright law in the name of a quick buck. Palworld might not have been built by AI (probably not anyway, that seems to still be up for debate), but it feels like it could have been, and I'm not sure what's worse. In an era of the internet where we are hyper-aware of the implications of AI on originality, there is a certain newfound horror to the witnessing of human actors haphazardly stitching together the hard-created material of others into a vague facsimile and trying to flog it off for their own gain. YouTube had a much-needed wake-up call to this behaviour thanks to the hard work of hbomberguy in what could be justly called "the Somerton affair". However, Palworld's shift from being an object of curiosity into a social phenomenon which has accrued a highly rabid and defensive fanbase, and games media pivoting in their reporting from scepticism to completely uncritical arse-kissing of the game the second it has become popular, bodes ill for the games industry learning that same lesson anytime soon.

Header Image Credit: Pocket Pair Press Kit

Author

Christopher Hill

Christopher Hill Contributor

I am a musician, musicologist, and music journalist. I did my BA in music at the University of Oxford and am currently doing a PhD in music performance practice at the University of Birmingham.

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