What is ‘Palworld,’ and how did it become the most talked-about video game?

This photo illustration shows the trailer for the game "Palworld" being played on a screen behind a smartphone showing the PocketPair website. (Photo illustration by Yahoo; photo by Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week, Nintendo’s Pokémon Company released a statement that implied that it was looking into the video game Palworld for possible intellectual property infringement.

Palworld, which was released on Jan. 19 and has been described by fans as “Pokémon with guns," has exploded in popularity. The game had an all-time peak count of more than 1.8 million concurrent players on Steam, a digital video game distributor, where it also sold over 5 million copies in the first three days. Xbox, where the game is also sold, has not yet confirmed how many copies have been sold or downloaded on Xbox Game Pass.

While Nintendo did not explicitly name Palworld or its developer, Pocketpair, in the statement, it addresses “another company’s game released in January 2024.”

“We have not granted any permission for the use of Pokémon intellectual property or assets in that game,” Nintendo's statement read. “We intend to investigate and take appropriate measures to address any acts that infringe on intellectual property rights related to the Pokémon.”

The game, which was released on Steam and Xbox less than a month ago, has catapulted onto the scene with arguably little marketing and fanfare. So how has it now become Steam’s most popular game?

What is ‘Palworld’?

Palworld is a survival game set in a world populated by animal-monster-hybrid creatures called “Pals,” which human players can fight and capture. Pals can be put to work in the mines or armed with modern weapons to help players take over the world.

The trailer announcement for Palworld initially went viral when it dropped in 2021, but there was little to no buzz surrounding the game until it was officially released on Steam and Xbox. That's compared with other video game releases that sometimes exhausted and irritated fans with pre-roll ads and shout-outs from YouTubers.

Now the game is the most-played video game on Steam, with a larger number of concurrent players than some of the most popular games of the last few years, including Elden Ring, Counter-Strike 2 and Hogwarts Legacy.

What makes this accomplishment even more impressive is that it’s still considered an early-access title — meaning the game is fully functional, but there is still active development going on.

Palworld is a popular game because you can give an assault rifle to a monkey, and it turns out to be a good, safe, fruitful decision and most importantly, it’s funny,” surmised Washington Post video game writer Gene Park.

Its origin story is arguably unusual for such a successful game. Pocketpair CEO Takuro Mizobe reportedly funded the company with money he earned from crypto, and the game started with a development budget of $10,000 and only four developers.

For context, AAA video games — an informal classification for video games that are produced and distributed by midsize or major publishers — usually have development and marketing budgets that run into the millions. Hogwarts Legacy’s budget, for example, is estimated to have been $150 million.

In a blog post from before the game’s launch, Mizobe wrote that Palworld was the opposite of “proper game development.”

Why are people comparing ‘Palworld’ and ‘Pokémon’?

Gamers immediately pointed out similarities between the design of Pals and Pokémon characters in 2021, when the trailer dropped. Both sets of creatures have powers and are captured by human players throwing a special ball at them. Some fans argue that some of the Pal designs are too similar to have not been inspired by the original Pokémon characters.

The goal of Palworld is to survive; while the goal of most Pokémon games is to try to collect every monster and eventually become a master. While Pocketpair denies any connection to Pokémon, the game does tap into an opening in the market for lifelong Pokémon fans who want “more adult” games.

In a Jan. 22 interview, Mizobe said Pocketpair takes “our games very seriously” and has “absolutely no intention of infringing upon the intellectual property of other companies.” He also claimed that the game had passed all legal reviews. In another interview, Mizobe called Pokémon the “overwhelming leader of the monster collection/raising genre” and said he was “scared to compare it to Palworld” because of how established the name is.

Yahoo News has not received an immediate response from Pocketpair after reaching out for comment.

All the comparisons have seemingly taken a dark turn. Three days after the game’s release, Mizobe tweeted that Pocketpair was “receiving slanderous comments against our artists.”

“I have received a variety of opinions regarding Palworld, but all productions related to Palworld are supervised by multiple people, including myself,” he said in a translated post. “I would appreciate it if you would refrain from slandering the artists involved.”

Ethical issues with ‘Palworld’

There are darker elements to Palworld play that certainly were not in any Pokémon game. For one, players are allowed to capture other human characters and sell body parts on the black market.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) also publicly spoke following the backlash against the game’s alleged capabilities to inflict animal cruelty — although the statement focused on the ability to eat Pals, not arming Pals and sending them to kill others.

“PETA has already heard from many Palworld fans who have no interest in eating ‘Pals’ and want a vegan guide created for the game,” the response said. “It’s ‘Veganuary’ after all, and gamers want to help animals by eating vegan in their game worlds and outside.”

In 2020, PETA created a vegan-friendly guide for the Animal Crossing: New Horizons game, so it’s not unusual for the group to comment on video games.

There are also accusations that Palworld creator Pocketpair used generative artificial intelligence (AI) to create the game. AI’s involvement in video games has been a source of debate for years. The argument against it, from fans, seems to be about creative originality and keeping jobs for developers and artists.

Pocketpair did release a game called AI: Art Imposter that uses an AI image generator, but it doesn’t seem to be the case for Palworld. For one, Steam requires that games be labeled as having been created with generative AI tools, which is not disclosed on Palworld’s page.

Ultimately, what fans have credited as being the key to Palworld’s success is the combination of different elements from various popular game genres and, as one video game designer put it, the “social, lofi” visuals, similar to those of Roblox.