PALWORLD: Meme Game, or Legit Survival Experience?

Appearing literally out of nowhere, Palworld is perhaps the release that marks the gaming landscape so far in the first month of 2024. It was released in Early Access status on the 19th, and since then it's... caused quite a stir, to put it lightly. On one hand we have rabid Nintendo fanbois screaming that the game is a rip-off of Pokémon (with Pocket Pair's developers claiming to have even received death threats from such fans!) and/or that it was created entirely using AI and copied assets, a situation which prompted the Pokémon Company to issue a statement today that it "intends to investigate the case for any legal implications". On the other hand, we have this seemingly unremarkable game blasting every sales record in less than a week, as it has already sold over 8 million copies on Steam, reaching up to 2 million concurrent players on the platform in the last few days!

So what exactly is the case with Palworld? Is it just a shoddy knockoff and a "flavor of the month" meme game that has seen undeserved success purely because of the memes and the controversy surrounding its name? Or does it have more substantial things to offer as a game?

Gotta Catch 'Em All! Uh, I mean, "Have to Collect The Whole Lot", legally distinguishable difference.

Let's get the obvious out of the way: the core of Palworld's "creature collection" gameplay is identical Pokémon gameplay but with different names. There are creatures called Pals roaming the countryside, which, from a design perspective, could very easily be Pokémon but... they're not (some of them do look TOO much like established Pokémon, truth be told). Players capture Pals using PokeBalls Pal Spheres, and Pals have increasing Level and Combat Skills (largely randomized, so if you capture 3-4 Pals of the same species then they won't all have the same Skills) that they can use in Real-Time battles. There is also in the game world an organization called Syndicate, whose hostile agents capture, abuse and trade Pals, just like Team Rocket for example.

If Palworld's gameplay consisted of only these features, then we would obviously be talking about a reskin-cashgrab, as "legally distinct" as possible to avoid copyright infringement lawsuits. It should be noted, however, that, apparently, the user who originally accused Palworld of "copying Pokémon using AI" has admitted to tampering with the scale of the models being compared to reinforce his point. And beyond that, the truth is that Palworld has many other different elements in its gameplay loop. After all, the meme title originally attributed to the game was... "Ark Pokemon with guns and slavery".

The game also has its mysterious background Lore, with strange skyscrapers and castle ruins testifying to an ancient human presence in the island chain where Pals live, as well as scattered Journals giving information about the world.

The "Ark" factor obviously refers to Palworld's Survival gameplay: resource farming, base building, gear crafting, a tech tree that is unlocked as we level up and spend special resources found in the world, hunger meter, different Biomes with hot/cold weather conditions that require special equipment to access, plus obviously capturing, breeding and using "dinosaur-like" creatures for combat and exploration. The "guns" part of the title is a somewhat more straightforward description, as in the game we can wield various kinds of projectile weapons, from crossbows and muskets to rocket launchers, with many Pals even having this weaponry as a special ability in battles!

The interesting, and sometimes downright comical, aspect of the "slavery" factor is that we can assign captured Pals to various laborer roles in our base. No matter what you say, seeing a cute pink ball with a moustache wandering around your base digging for ore and watering the wheat plantations is an image of such stark contrasts that it ends up being comical. And it largely justifies the memes that came out of it.

There is, finally, a Rogue-lite element to Palworld's gameplay, which hasn't been memed so people might not have heard about it. Various dungeons of increasing levels appear (and reset and respawn from time to time) at points in the quite large game world, with bosses and chests of high quality randomized loot (gear, schematics, or other valuables) at the end of them.

Remember the Pokémon episode where Ash chops up Magikarp with a meat cleaver because he's in the mood for grilled fish and ouzo? All-time-classic.

The above elements may have been seen, in one form or another, in almost all Survival games that have been released, and I could certainly, for example, personally point out elements in Palworld that I had also seen while playing Conan Exiles or Valheim. The "Pokémon with guns" factor plus the Rogue-lite factor might be the elements that make the difference and give Palworld its originality, and certainly a Pokémon fan is more likely to buy the game than a traditional hardcore Survival game fan. With that in mind, we can come to some conclusions as far as Palworld is concerned.

First, beyond the obvious meme value, and beyond the false accusations of "stealing through AI", there is a 100% legit game here. In Early Access and at a very early stage of course, but with quite rich gameplay already (and with a defined "road map" for its next updates).

Secondly, like everything else in life, this game is not for everyone. It obviously has a light Survival core, so it immediately repels non-fans of that genre (or even fans looking for a more hardcore Survival experience), but the heart of the game is in the collection and exploitation of creatures, and that feature will be what ultimately makes or breaks its sales.

A base where every cute giant goatman has already taken his place in the quarry and has been toiling away since morning, is a happy base.

Thirdly, that, indeed, some of Palworld's features are "loans" from other games, even blatant ripoffs one might say. But, is it the first game that has ever done this (or will it be the last)? When Vampire Survivors became the success that it did and 10-20 different "Bullet Hell/Auto Shooter" games started popping up left and right on Steam, did the developers of, say, Crimsonland come out and demand legal action against all those other creators? When "Soulslike" was established as a popular game genre, did FromSoftware send out legal notices to the entire known universe?

Ultimately, what I think agitated Palworld's haters the most, whether they are hardcore fanbois or specific companies, is its unprecedented success. No one would bother with it if it scored a low 10-20k concurrent player performance as a typical low-end indie game, but here we're dealing with millions of players and therefore hot money. And money always tends to inflame passions.

I'm also suing Pocket Pair for copyright infringement. Pals are designed to be obviously cute and pretty, but my mom has repeatedly told me that only I am cute and pretty.

In the end, the developers of Pocket Pair simply saw a gap in the PC gaming market and moved to exploit it. That gap was created by Nintendo/Pokémon Company/Game Freak themselves in the first place, both through the low quality of their latest Pokemon games and their refusal to release them on PC but instead keep them as Switch exclusives. As crass and cynical as it may sound... tough luck.

I personally played Palworld through MS Game Pass just to see what all the fuss was about, and I can say that I enjoyed it enough to put the updates that the developers will release in the future on my radar . Not calling it the deepest or most complex game I've ever played... but not everything in life needs to be complex. Sometimes all it takes to get you in the mood is to climb aboard your not-Pidgeotto and explore the beautiful world, or instruct your not-Bulbasaur to start breaking rocks like a slave before he climbs onto your shoulders and starts mauling invaders with his Assault Rifle. And that's perfectly OK.

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Κώστας Καλλιανιώτης

Archaeologist/Historian, RPG Player, Motörhead fan, Consumer of Mutton.

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