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Analysis • Palworld by Pocketpair: the equal-opportunity offender

The hottest game these weeks is Palworld by Japanese developer Pocketpair. It’s an open-world survival craft game where you tame monsters and put them to work. And it has earned more than $200 million in its first five days. Not bad for a $7.6 million development budget.

But the game stands out for a few reasons beyond its initial monetary success. To start, Palworld borrows blatantly from existing hit titles and intellectual property. The studio denies this, even if its various creatures’ similarities with Pokémon are hard to miss. The similarities are so strong that it has earned the game the moniker ‘Pokémon with guns.’

More so, its environment and heads-up display look eerily similar to that from Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Both feature large open worlds and show the same exact environmental indicators (e.g., temperature, weather). The environment is riddled with enemies that look a lot like those helmet-wearing Helghasts from Killzone and is littered with Fortnite-esque chests.

Similarities all around

Beyond its look and feel, the gameplay mechanics found in Palworld also closely match those from other well-known games. The concept of having monster companions and mounts clearly comes from Ark: Survival Evolved and the technology tree skill system looks almost identical. The survival mechanics and in-game tasks draw on Rust. Beyond Pokémon, some of the creature designs are similar to those found in Dragon Quest. Oh, and did I mention its similarities to Minecraft?

Understandably this has raised a lot of eyebrows. But in a write-up from Pocketpair’s CEO, Takuro Mizobe, dryly states:

“While many people currently probably see Palworld as just a rip-off game, in reality I believe it has as much originality as BOTW and Genshin Impact. First of all, in the open world survival craft genre spawned by Minecraft, the only major hit title where you can tame monsters is ARK: Survival Evolved. And Palworld differs from ARK in the stylized graphics of the Pals creatures combined with a realistic background look, autonomous base-building by Pals, different taming methods, and the ability to freely reassign various skills to each Pal.”

Short-haired Zelda

Unencumbered, Pocketpair has developed several titles that borrow heavily from other popular games. Previously it released Craftopia which similarly emulates existing games, described as “a short-haired Zelda throws a core crystal from Xenoblade Chronicles at a giraffe.” But Craftopia proved a more modest success.

The 7 million figure is Steam-only, as Microsoft has undoubtedly gagged Pocketpair from publicly sharing its player count on Game Pass. Add another few million and Palword totals about 10 million players across all devices.

Off the rails

Its sudden success, however, proved to be a challenge. Encouraged by initial feedback on its trailer, much of the planning around Palworld went off the rails. Pocketpair planned for a one-year development timeline but soon realized that its scope had expanded and that it would take much longer. By 2023 it expanded the team to more than 40 people and finally released in Early Access in January this year. On Wednesday is counted more than 2 million concurrent players on Steam, surpassing Counter-Strike 2’s all-time record of 1.85 million players.

Palworld managed to strike a different chord and not just with players in Europe and the United States. While most of the Western press currently focuses on the unit sales on Steam and Xbox, Palworld is also among the top-ranking titles on Chinese streaming platforms. Live streaming is generally a useful proxy for broader appetite and purchase intent. According to Niko Partners (disclosure: I’m an advisor), Palworld was the 4th most popular title on Bilibili with 140,000 streamed hours reaching 18 million subscribers. That makes it currently more popular than Minecraft (10 million), Apex Legends (9.2 million), VALORANT (9.1 million), CS: GO (7.4 million), and PUBG (6.3 million).

Global appetite

It evidences a global appetite and also raises the question of long-term sustainability. Certainly, Palworld came out the gate with a bang. Its indifference to blatantly copying the best parts of other wildly successful titles is now part of its marketing narrative. But can it maintain its momentum, especially given its $30 price tag?

The fact that the game is only 60 percent completed provides one hint about its possible future. Certainly, some of the more buggy elements will smooth out over time. Palworld has more in the works, including player-versus-player gameplay using creatures and weapons, team-based challenges (e.g., guild raids), and connecting different communities to facilitate the trading of creatures across servers. Taking such an approach allows for de-risking the initial release.

Considering its low cost, massive success, and iterative approach that borrows freely from popular aesthetics and gameplay features, Pocketpair’s breakout hit Palworld offers both an enticing experience and an innovative approach to contemporary development.

Joost van Dreunen
Joost van Dreunenhttps://superjoost.substack.com/
Joost van Dreunen is an academic and entrepreneur with an expertise in video games. He teaches at the NYU Stern School of Business and is author of One Up: Creativity, Competition, and the Global Business of Video Games. Previously Joost was co-founder and CEO of SuperData Research, a games market research firm, which Nielsen (NYSE: NLSN) acquired in 2018. He is an investor and advises funds and firms active in interactive entertainment.

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