‘Pokémon With Guns’ Game Palworld’s Controversies, Explained

It has been a whirlwind of a weekend for Palworld, the Ark-like survival game colloquially called “Pokémon With Guns.” Pocketpair’s latest has already sold over five million copies since launching in Early Access on January 19, and shot to the top of Steam and Twitch charts over the weekend. Palworld has been a lightning rod for controversy for vast and varied reasons that are in some cases, pretty legitimate, from claims that it’s an edgy meme riffing on a childhood staple to accusations of using AI to create its characters.

But since the team claims it’s been recently receiving death threats from people unhappy with the game’s premise, it’s a good time to take a step back and look at the big picture. Let’s break down what’s been going on since Palworld launched, from plagiarism and AI accusations to what its success means for Pokémon fans and the franchise’s future.

Palworld is not a threat to Pokémon

Here at Exp. Share, Kotaku’s weekly Pokémon column, we look at the history of Pikachu and friends’ adventures and the culture that has sprouted up around it over the past 28 years. Part of understanding that history is understanding that we have been here before and will inevitably be here again—despite the cultural ubiquity of Pokémon, Game Freak and The Pokémon Company don’t have a monopoly on the monster-taming genre. Competitors in the space have existed for as long as Pokémon has.

Digimon started as virtual pets in 1997, a year after Pokémon Red and Blue launched on the original Game Boy. While it never quite reached Pokémon’s popularity, it has maintained a loyal fanbase over nearly three decades and has carved out a niche in the young adult genre with its stories that distinguish it from Pokémon’s family-friendly tone. Monster Rancher has quietly been maintaining its own corner of the public consciousness since 1997, as well. These were growing around the same time as Pokémon, but they never gained the same foothold as Ash and Pikachu did in the late ‘90s.

Even outside of the very mainstream, multimedia, all-ages-oriented attempts to ape Nintendo’s formula, games like Shin Megami Tensei have had monster-taming elements long before Pokémon existed, as the original launched almost a decade before Red and Blue. Dragon Quest has also had these mechanics in several of its games since Dragon Quest V (1992), and even has a dedicated spin-off series Dragon Quest Monsters, which focuses entirely on those systems. The Yo-Kai Watch series was pegged as a Pokémon competitor early on when it launched in 2013 and has since struggled to maintain its momentum. TemTem was created as a response to Pokémon’s perceived failings, and the MMO has established its own community without ending Pokémon’s reign.

Welcome to Exp. Share, Kotaku’s Pokémon column in which we dive deep to explore notable characters, urban legends, communities, and just plain weird quirks from throughout the Pokémon franchise.

There’s a larger conversation to be had here about competition, the capitalistic belief that the best product wins out in the market, and the fact that seemingly nothing (even franchises with arguably better games, as of late) can overtake Pokémon. But the point is that this franchise has become too culturally ingrained for a game like Palworld to topple Pikachu off his throne in the monster-taming kingdom. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet can launch in a broken state and still sell 23 million copies on just one platform. So if we’re making the argument that Palworld’s about to dethrone the decades-long winner of the monster-taming race on the back of ripped-off monster designs, we need to put things into perspective.

There are individual issues that affect the workers at The Pokémon Company and its subsidiaries that we’ll get to, but we don’t need to worry about the most profitable entertainment franchise of all time,and we certainly don’t need to resort to death threats.

But let’s not pretend Palworld’s characters aren’t a blatant copy

The “Pokémon With Guns” label is an easy shorthand, and its memetic force has worked in Palworld’s favor. But when you actually sit down and look at Pokémon and Pals side by side, there are some egregious similarities that can’t be passed off as just another [animal]. As fans have pointed out, some of Palworld’s characters are nearly identical to ones from Pokémon, with color palette swaps and some details shifted enough so as not to be 1:1 copies. This thread alone has over 60 examples comparing Pokémon and Pal designs, and while they’re not all dead ringers for the original Pocket Monsters, there’s more than enough to raise concerns.

Pocketpair claims it’s gone through the hurdles necessary to ensure Palworld is legally safe from accusations of copyright infringement. The studio claims Nintendo hasn’t made any attempts to get the game shut down since its announcement in 2021, but it’s unclear if the boom in interest might have Nintendo paying a little more attention. Palworld likely falls under Parody Law, which protects works that imitate others in an “exaggerated, comedic fashion,” and given it has similar but not identical creatures wielding assault rifles,that sounds like an apt description

The gunplay is only one of several mechanics that keeps Palworld distinct from Pokémon. Pocketpair’s game has elements of Fortnite’s building, Ark’s survival modes, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s exploration. Yes, you play a human, find critters in the wild, and capture them in a spherical object that shakes a few times as they attempt to escape, all like you would in one of Game Freak’s RPGs. But it ultimately does not fill the same void that would be left by Pokémon’s hypothetical demise.

What about the AI accusations against Palworld?

Part of the reason Palworld has courted so much controversy is accusations that Pocketpair used AI to create its Pals and how that AI may have actually scraped Pokémon datasets for material. Given how prevalent the fear is around AI-generated art, particularly because some generators scrape copyrighted material from human artists, it’s now (unfortunately) natural to question when a game’s assets seem to be derivative of something else. As Palworld has gained popularity post-launch, more and more people have pointed out that pieces of some Pals look almost entirely ripped from Pokémon games.

Pocketpair CEO Takuro Mizobe posted about the accusations and response on X (formerly Twitter). While he didn’t outright deny any of the above, he did ask for the ire directed toward the team’s artists to stop and claimed responsibility for the game’s production, as per Eurogamer’s translation.

Pocketpair has openly used AI in past projects. AI: Art Impostor uses AI-generated art on a mechanical level, requiring players to create art with an AI tool rather than drawing and CEO Mizobe has expressed interest in AI’s impact on the video game industry. But there has been no concrete evidence that confirms Palworld’s characters were made by artificial intelligence or any kind of statement from the studio. Kotaku has reached out to Pocketpair requesting comment from the studio on allegations that it used AI in Palworld’s creation, and will update the story if we hear back.

Also as Forbes points out, Steam has implemented a new policy that requires developers to disclose the use of AI in their games. As of this writing, Palworld has no such disclosure on the storefront.

I still haven’t played Palworld yet, and given how busy the next month is going to be, I don’t know that I ever will. But if the game’s success has put a spotlight on anything, it’s been the way misinformation can flow out of control. There’s a lot of worthwhile criticism to be thrown Palworld’s way, but at this point, parts of it is unsubstantiated. Palworld is easy to write off as another Pokémon clone for its derivative designs, but it also carves out its own niche in the monster-taming genre. There’s more to be said about Pocketpair’s game beyond it being a rip-off of Pokémon and more information gaps to fill before we start sharpening the ax.

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