Palworld AI controversy, Pokémon plagiarism accusations explained

(Image credit: Pocketpair)

Update 1/24/2024 at 9:30 a.m. PT / 11:30 a.m. ET: This article has been updated with new information about the plagiarism accusations against Pocketpair and Palworld.

Pocketpair's open-world survival creature collector title Palworld has quickly become one of the most popular games since its release on Xbox and PC last week. Gamers worldwide have been won over by its unique 'ARK: Survival Evolved-like' blend of genres, "Pokémon with guns" premise, and the amusing contrast between its adorable critters and the horrors you can subject them to. It's sold over 5 million copies and became the third most-played Steam game ever when it recently broke 1.5 million concurrent players.

But while Palworld is undoubtedly the biggest new game of 2024, it's also undoubtedly its most controversial. Just days after its Early Access launch, the studio behind it has been accused of using AI to make the game, and many have raked it over the coals for allegedly stealing from Pokémon as well.

There's been a lot said in a very short amount of time, so we've laid out everything that's been going on in this article in case you've been out of the loop. This includes all the reasons why it's been claimed that Palworld was developed with AI and why people think Pocketpair plagiarized Pokémon.

Palworld AI controversy: Is it AI generated?

An intense battle against a high-level Mammorest in Palworld. (Image credit: Pocketpair)

Shortly after Palworld's release, concerns and rumors that the game — the designs of its Pal creatures, mainly — may have been created with generative AI tools rapidly circulated in social media circles. This soon led to more direct claims that AI was used in Palworld's development, which probably led you to this article.

At the time of writing, however, there's no concrete evidence that this is actually the case. Despite this lack of proof, there's good reason to be suspicious. In a series of Tweets from the last few years, Pocketpair CEO Takuro Mizobe appeared to express interest in AI and its use in game development, with the executive seeming particularly amazed by AI generations of Pokémon in a 2021 post (more examples in this thread).

The studio also released AI: Art Impostor, a multiplayer party game that prominently features generative AI, in late 2022. In it, players use AI to create artwork that follows a theme, with one player each round chosen to be an impostor who doesn't know the theme and has to attempt to guess it to avoid suspicion. Its description notes that you "are a progressive artist who commands AI to generate images, and you don't need aesthetic talent to draw good artwork," so take that how you will. Pocketpair also considered adding NFTs to its 2020 survival game Craftopia in 2021.

Two allied Pal Tamers in Palworld. (Image credit: Windows Central)

The developer hasn't responded directly to the accusations. However, a recent blog post says an artist rejected from almost 100 other studios "now draws most of the characters in Palworld," and Mizobe didn't mention AI a single time in a new Automaton interview about the game's development, either. It's also worth noting that a little over a week into the new year — and a little over a week before Palworld's release — Valve implemented a new Steam policy that requires developers to report if their game was made with AI tools. The company noted that it "will also include much of your disclosure on the Steam store page for your game, so customers can also understand how the game uses AI." At the moment, no such disclosure is visible on Palworld's Steam listing, though Palworld could have cleared Valve's review process before the policy went into effect.

Ultimately, while it's possible that Pocketpair could have used generative AI in Palworld's development, there's no definitive proof that confirms the claims people are making. We'll be sure to update this article if that changes, though, or to provide more information if it comes to light.

Did Palworld steal from Pokémon?

Pals Cattiva, Lamball, and Chikiti in Palworld. (Image credit: Pocketpair)

Palworld's cutesy, cartoonish art direction and creature designs scream "Pokémon clone" at a glance, but some believe that Pocketpair is borrowing too much from Nintendo's franchise. In fact, separate from the AI controversy, the developer has been accused of plagiarism and outright ripping off several Pokémon designs and design cues.

There have been tons of threads about this on social media sites like X (Twitter), but the best I've found is this one, with a whopping 63 side-by-side comparisons between Pokémon and Palworld Pals (click the embed below to see the whole thing). You can chalk many of these similarities up to artistic inspiration, though some of them had me raising an eyebrow.

Designs aren't the only thing Pocketpair is accused of stealing, however. After X user @byofrog posted videos comparing the 3D models of Pals with those from Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, many began to claim that the company ripped assets from those games to use in Palworld.

"You cannot, in any way, accidentally get the same proportions on multiple models from another game without ripping the models. Or, at the very least, tracing them meticulously first," said an anonymous AAA senior character artist while speaking with VGC. "I would stand in court to testify as an expert on this."

"There have been times when dozens of artists are given the same concept art to create a 3D model, for example, during art tests for jobs. I've seen 30 artists try to make the same horse using the exact schematics. None were as close to each other as these Palworld models are to the Pokémon models. None," they continued. "The silhouettes and proportions here are near-perfect matches."

But these comparisons have also come under scrutiny, with one user highlighting differences between the meshes that are more clearly visible in still images taken of one of "Byo's" videos. Additional screenshots from Byo made further dissimilarities clear to see, as well. Byo also made a follow-up post in which they addressed criticism of their previous assertion that the Pal and Pokémon models being compared "have exactly the same proportions."

"I feel a little regretful for using 'exactly' so flippantly here. I was trying to be silly but I think it gave an incorrect impression," they wrote. "I want to emphasize that while some elements are similar these meshes are not literally 'exact' copies of each other."

Suppose Nintendo can prove that Palworld does indeed use stolen Pokémon assets — in that case, I'm sure its historically litigious legal teams will jump at the opportunity to take things to court. Pocketpair CEO Takuro Mizobe, though, claimed that the game has made it through legal reviews while speaking with Automaton and that no action has been taken against it (at least, not yet).

"We make our games very seriously, and we have absolutely no intention of infringing upon the intellectual property of other companies," Mizobe said.

Mizobe also recently responded to the controversy on X, noting that Palworld's artists have received death threats (the below quote is translated from Japanese).

"Currently, we are receiving slanderous comments against our artists, and we are seeing tweets that appear to be death threats," he wrote. "I have received a variety of opinions regarding Palworld, but all productions related to Palworld are supervised by multiple people, including myself, and I am responsible for the production. I would appreciate it if you would refrain from slandering the artists involved in Palworld."

Where does heavy inspiration end and apparent plagiarism begin? It's a tricky line to draw, and always has been. I think Nintendo would have a tough time making a solid case against Palworld's creature designs, but it'll have quite the smoking gun on its hands if it finds evidence of model theft. For now, we'll have to wait and see what happens.

Palworld is now available for $30 on Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and Windows PC through the Microsoft Store or Steam. The Xbox and Microsoft Store versions are missing features for now, so be aware. It's playable on Xbox Game Pass, though.

Brendan Lowry

Brendan Lowry is a Windows Central writer and Oakland University graduate with a burning passion for video games, of which he's been an avid fan since childhood. You'll find him doing reviews, editorials, and general coverage on everything Xbox and PC. Follow him on Twitter.

  • bazanime
    Pokemon diehards dislike the success of this sudden lookalike even though Palworld will never reach the same heights or pop culture influence.

    There may be some merit in the claims but it's all so obvious and out in the open what it's inspired by that the devs would have already sought permission before trying. It seems Nintendo hasn't even raised an eyebrow yet, but if the X warriors keep pushing Nintendo may have to wave a finger.

    Yet so many people are just having fun with the game. Enjoying the adorable fluffy balls of gun-carrying death with their friends.

    It's still in alpha so there is time to amend any offending duplicates and settle on AI being a tool, as is a spreadsheet, or a calculator.