If you keep an eye on the gaming news at all, you might have heard about a strange little indie game in development over the last couple of years. Often stylized as “Pokemon with guns,” Palworldis an odd Psyduck, a fusion of modern crafting games like Ark and Valheim with the familiar monster fighting of the world’s most lucrative media franchise. Its launch this weekend was a shocking success, selling over five million copies, shooting it to the #3 concurrent player spot on Steam.
That’s not the third most-played Steam game this weekend. No, Palworld gets the #1 spot with a bullet among recent releases. That’s the third most-played Steam game in the history of Steam with a peak of just over 1.5 million players at one time. Only PUBG and Counter-Strike 2 have reached higher numbers. And that’s apparently true despite the game being exclusive to Xbox and PC (missing the large PlayStation and Switch portions of the market) and being offered to millions of players for free via a day-one release on the Xbox Game Pass. Console and Game Pass PC players aren’t included in the Steam sales or concurrent player numbers.
So what’s the big deal? Palworld seems to be a perfect storm of game element fusion and memetic potential. Players have been excited to try it ever since early trailers showed the cartoony characters and cuddly monsters in a world where you could craft semi-realistic automatic weapons and Minecraft-style houses in persistent multiplayer environments. Palworld also includes a dash of exploration elements from open-world games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
It probably doesn’t hurt that the trailers have a bit of edge to them. They show the teenage-looking player characters working their captured monsters to death in automated resource factories, and engaging in permadeath combat that’s far more visceral than its strictly “E for Everyone” inspiration. Palworld appears to be engaging with the disturbing implications of the long-running Pokemon games, like dogfighting and animal exploitation, that Nintendo’s franchise will only hint at for fear of sullying its squeaky-clean image. It might just be that Palworld is scratching the itch of adult players who’ve been eager for a more complex take on monster hunting and battling since the days of the Game Boy Color. It probably doesn’t hurt that the last few mainline Pokemon games have been stale at best, disappointing at worst.
Palworld isn’t without its issues. Despite securing a deal with Microsoft for inclusion on the Game Pass, it has the usual launch bugs and stability issues of an indie game with a huge scope and persistent online play. Especially picky fans will point out that some of its colorful monster designs might veer over the line of homage/parody into straight ripoff. But If the player counts and early reviews are any indication, there are literally millions of fans who don’t mind, and have made Palworld the first certified smash hit of 2024.
Michael is a former graphic designer who’s been building and tweaking desktop computers for longer than he cares to admit. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order.