Recently, with the massive success of the survival / creature-collector, Palworld, there has been a bit of an uproar online. Many accuse the developer, Pocketpair, of copying the most popular creature-collecting game franchise of all time, Pokémon. While there is certainly reason for discussion, and maybe even cause for alarm, we all need to remember the size of the companies involved.
This is not to say that Pocketpair is the David to The Pokémon Company’s Goliath (though really anyone would be). Love them or hate them, Pocketpair’s past games haven’t exactly been paragons of originality. Perhaps the easiest comparison is 2022’s Craftopia to another popular Nintendo title, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Much like how Palworld’s marketing leaned into the “Pokémon with Guns” angle, Craftopia doesn’t seem to shy away from making itself look like Breath of the Wild.
It feels important to mention that I am coming at this topic as a long-time fan of Pokémon games. I know they are far from perfect, especially recently. This is why, despite my long-time support, I will continue to be critical of bad decisions the games make in the hope that they eventually improve. Palworld, on the other hand, is simply not for me. I have never been able to enjoy survival-style games like Ark: Survival Evolved or Rust, so when I heard that this game had similar mechanics, it was an immediate red flag for me. Add in that a large part of the game is punching or shooting the pals and making them work in factories, and it’s just not something that draws my interest.
Regarding the similarities between the Pokémon and Palworld creature designs, I do think there are a handful of examples that seem a little too close for comfort. The two most striking comparisons are Eevee & Cremis and Fenglope & Cobalion. There are certainly others that I wouldn’t feel comfortable publishing in a world where Nintendo could sue me, but so far, Nintendo hasn’t taken any legal action. They did make a statement that they were investigating, so that could change, but their statement really felt like they were finally addressing the online outcry more than anything else.
Here’s the crux of it for me, Pokémon, the media franchise, is the number-one, highest-grossing media franchise of all time. Higher than Star Wars and Marvel PUT TOGETHER. The franchise (including video games, movies, and collectibles) adds up to $88 billion, with 2022 being the most profitable year on record so far at over $11 billion.
Pokémon does not need any favors from me, or anyone else.
The Pokémon franchise is so ubiquitous to creature-collecting that any other game that tries to innovate or even just create another game in the genre, is inevitably compared to it. I can think of few other games that have such a strong grip on an entire genre. So while I may not be a fan of Palworld myself, I am ultimately glad that someone else is finally at least giving Pokémon a run for their money.
Highest-grossing franchisesSource: Statista.com
The creature-collecting genre has had a lot of interesting games over the last few years that are too easily written off because of their similarity to Pokémon. Developer Bytten Studio released Cassette Beasts in April 2023 to incredible praise from critics and fans alike, and with a unique concept, excellent soundtrack, and amazing creature designs it deserves so much more. Studio Supersoft released Moonstone Island in September 2023. This creature-collector also brings life-sim mechanics like farming and deck-builder combat to the genre for an overall slower-paced adventure. I could go on (and I will in this article), but the point is that Pokémon has had long enough on the top, and if it wants to keep that spot, it will have to start delivering some higher-quality games. Palworld is just the first to actually start to rival it in terms of sales.
The biggest question that I have not seen answered yet is how the actual Pokémon artists feel about Palworld. The Pokémon Company might own the designs they created, but it is still their creation. If they feel that something has been stolen or copied, then action should be taken on their behalf. In moments like this, it is important to separate the actual creative energy that hard-working people put into their art and the monetary concerns of the company that owns that art. I have read about people talking to the Pokémon legal team, and interviewing other media law experts, but I have not heard a comment from any of the actual artists.
I do think many people understand this, at least to some degree. This might be why the accusation of Palworld using AI to create their creature designs gained so much traction, even though there is no actual evidence as of yet. Art and AI is a whole other topic for another article though.
The Pokémon Company will continue to happily cash their checks, and as long as they aren’t taken to court, Pocketpair will too. Getting nearly twenty million sales on Steam in the first few weeks after launch is not something many games can brag about.
For now, I will continue to advocate for Pokémon games to be better. I’ll continue to not play Palworld for the reasons I outlined above (also adding this here, I don’t really want to play a game where my actions can lead to small creatures having a depression status, that doesn’t feel great to me). But I won’t try to do any pro-bono legal work for the highest-grossing media franchise any time soon either.
If anything, I hope that the huge impact that Palworld has had will create a ripple of change in the unique and under-appreciated creature-collecting genre. Maybe Pokémon will actually feel the heat of some real competition for once, and strive to hold onto their fanbase by putting more effort and quality into their video game releases. Even though I’m not a fan, I still think there’s a lot Pokémon could learn from Palworld, such as actually creating engaging multiplayer mechanics for a start.
What are your thoughts on the Palworld x Pokémon rivalry? Do you think there will ever be an actual legal battle? Will The Pokémon Company feel the pressure of some actual competition and start making better games? Will Palworld maintain its popularity through Early Access? Leave a comment below with your thoughts!