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Palworld's AI allegations controversy has real repercussions

Palworld developer Pocketpair has been accused of making Palworld with AI, and fans and media are embarrassing themselves
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Pocketpair’s CEO, Takuro Mizobe, has said a few things I disagree with. In a Google Translated (sketchy accuracy, in other words) interview with Wired Japan, Mizobe said “I don’t have to be particular about originality.” Mizobe has also commented positively on the use of AI multiple times, in addition to pictures of AI-generated Pokémon (via Windows Central). It’s a bad look, and I’m going to be frank: I disagree with Mizobe wholeheartedly.

I think the use of AI in the creative process is incredibly suspect, and I am a big Nintendo fan for the same reasons that Mizobe disagreed with the company’s philosophy. Palworld, in my eyes, is an amalgamation of ideas and concepts we’ve seen dozens of times before, combined in a way that sets it apart from its contemporaries – fitting perfectly with Mizobe’s apparent philosophy. Survival, crafting, cute monster catching: these are popular mechanics, so they’re all included.

The distinct lack of originality, and lack of a cohesive artstyle, makes it easy for disgruntled Pokémon fans to accuse the game of being made by some AI overlord. Someone simply prompted “legally distinct survival crafting game” into ChatGPT until it spat out Palworld, right? It’s a tantalizing headline, for sure, but the evidence, repeatedly, says that it’s wrong.

A Palworld tamer is walking through a pasture filled with Lamball

Gotta admit, they're cute.

Intrepid fans have decided to investigate for themselves, comparing the geometry of Palworld pal models to Pokémon creatures from the latest game. If you ask me, it’s incredibly blatant that the Palworld artists were using Pokémon archetypes and design aspects to create pals, but when Twitter user byofrog showed the wireframe model of Pokémon Sobble against its alleged pal copycat, we can only conclude that they are different. Experienced 3D modelers have the same opinion: it would be easier to create an original model than edit Nintendo’s models to this extent and still have them work. This is a 3D model created by a person, no doubt about it.

Automaton Media (via VGC) reports that Mizobe stated that Palworld had cleared legal reviews, and that no IP holders were going to stop the release of the game or challenge it legally. People on Twitter keep saying that Nintendo Ninjas are going to storm Pocketpair HQ with cease-and-desist letters, but that hasn’t happened. You know what did happen? A Pokémon Palworld mod. And that was struck down by Nintendo and The Pokémon Company’s lawyers in less than 24 hours. If there was credence behind the allegations of Palworld stealing Nintendo or TPC’s intellectual property, their own legal teams have proven that they would’ve taken action before the game was even available.

The controversy, and response from games media, has come under fire. Twitter user RetroRemakes says: “The bit that gets me, right, is every outlet that lends credence to this stupidity. I know it's ‘well, it's news’ but treating the allegations that have no basis in reality, they're [...] plucked out of thin air just because with any kind of sincerity is completely f[...]d up.”

A Palworld kindling pal is riding on a young man's shoulders in a grassy glen next to a steep cliff.

Pals have a variety of uses, expanding the usual survival crafting gameplay loop.

Ryan Broderick shares his thoughts on GarbageDay, saying: “[I]f you look at something like Palworld and think an AI can do that, you are actually a massive sucker and are being duped by AI companies. AI panic is just as helpful for companies like Open AI as AI evangelism is. When you assume generative AI tools are better than they are, you’re making it much easier for AI companies to spook lawmakers and give themselves more resources to argue they need [to] ‘govern themselves’ to protect us from the robot uprising.”

It’s a point I hadn’t considered before: Palworld being a huge hit would increase the stock of words from AI executives who want to ignore copyright laws to profit – if it were made with AI, that is. Accusing Palworld of using AI isn’t fighting an incoming AI dystopia: it’s ushering one in. One where hyper-capitalists can profit off of your hard work – my hard work – to concoct their own second-hand slop and make more money than you or I could fathom.

Mizobe’s tweets haven’t helped the situation, but if you look into the details for even a few moments, you’ll see the outrage is misplaced. Palworld’s announce trailer came in June 2021, with a bunch of monster and character designs (that are still present in the game) introduced, in addition to basic gameplay mechanics and ideas. Six months later, Mizobe tweeted about those AI Pokémon designs.

Palworld fast travel point

Exploring the world is key in Palworld.

Yes, that’s definitely a bad look if you don’t know how game development works, but Palworld had clearly been in progress for well over a year ahead of the announcement trailer – which matches up with what Mizobe has said – meaning his AI Pokémon designs tweet came about a year and a half after development had started. On top of all of that, none of those AI Pokémon designs he showed off are actually in the game. Hardly evidence of wrongdoing, in my opinion.

It’s a controversy born of fear. Creatives are naturally afraid of what AI could mean for their livelihoods, but it’s leading to knee-jerk reactions. At the same time of this Palworld controversy, WWE 2K24’s cover was accused of being an AI illustration, and according to the artist Jonathan Bartlett, that couldn’t be further from the truth. These are offensive accusations to lay at the feet of people who have dedicated their lives to being professional creatives, and Bartlett has shared his opinions of AI art elsewhere on his Twitter feed – hint, he doesn’t like it.

Like the accusations put to Bartlett, you can only imagine what the team at Pocketpair have recently experienced. The game has sold more than six million copies on Steam – that’s not counting all of the players on Xbox Game Pass – and has become the second highest player peak of any game on Steam, ever. When a game has that many fans, and still manages to be this controversial, you can only imagine the volume of abuse devs might receive. Mizobe has taken to Twitter to ask that players not issue death threats towards Pocketpair staff. That is an absurd request to have to issue, and you mean to tell me it stemmed from plagiarism and AI use accusations? AI isn’t a real, feeling person, but the Pocketpair staff all are.

Palworld camp

Best played with friends.

Palworld is an amalgamation of popular things that came before, and I’ve seen games like this dozens of times before. The survival crafting genre isn’t new, and very few games have innovated further than Minecraft did years ago. Palworld’s cutesy creatures and darkly satirical tone set it apart from the rest of the genre, and I’m not sure there’s anything more to actually say about it as a game. As a controversy, though? People just won’t stop.

In my eyes, Palworld isn’t revolutionary or interesting enough to be as big of a hit as it currently is, but instead of being happy for a small indie studio, we’re tearing the team apart at every opportunity, holding them to higher standards than even Nintendo’s lawyers ever did.

I disagree with Mizobe on game development philosophy, and I don’t like how excited he is about AI use. Though he’s far from the first game industry CEO to share similar sentiments, I don’t think people will be boycotting Final Fantasy VII Rebirth from Square Enix, or Epic GamesFortnite.

A large dragon Pal with pink spikes projecting from its back is carrying a player character over a hilly, rocky area

I won't lie, I don't even know what this is.

Me and Mizobe, we probably wouldn’t agree on the best way to develop a videogame (not like he’d ask me after selling six million copies), but the one thing we agree on is that sending death threats during an absurd AI witch hunt is ludicrous. Try playing a game you actually like instead.

For the record, I’m not AI, and yes, I’m still here, despite everything.