Pokémon with guns? Welcome to ‘Palworld,’ 2024’s first viral hit game.

If you hibernated this past weekend and just woke up, welcome to a post-Palworld society.

“Palworld” emerged seemingly out of nowhere on Friday, releasing on PC’s Steam shop and Xbox, and has now sold more than 5 million copies in three days. It immediately became the most played video game on the planet, with more than 1.5 million concurrent players on Steam as of Monday morning. It has amassed a larger concurrent audience than every Steam game besides “PUBG: Battlegrounds” and “Counter-Strike 2.” That’s larger than the biggest games of the last two years, “Elden Ring,” “Baldur’s Gate 3” and “Hogwarts Legacy.”

Pocketpair, an independent studio in Japan, announced “Palworld” in 2021 with a bizarre trailer of cute critters who look suspiciously indistinguishable from Pokémon, except the monsters were not only armed with assault rifles, but are involved in mass-scale weapons development. “Pokémon with guns” became the meme. It was a joke.

Then the game launched Friday in early access, meaning the game is unfinished but sold to players who can provide feedback and data as developers finish a project. It had very little marketing before launch. The likeliest explanation for its sudden popularity: Pokémon is the largest entertainment brand in the world, and people have been starving for a high-definition, free-roaming and online monster-catching experience.

While the monsters look like Pokémon, the game itself is more of a survival game, closer to “Minecraft,” where players have to forage for resources to build new structures and tools for themselves, further enhancing the adventure and play possibilities. “Palworld” adds the twist of letting your monster “pals” do the manual labor around your home. When I dropped a water-shooting penguin off at my farm, she immediately waddled over to the fields and began watering. After 10 hours of play, I’ve created a self-sustaining gated community with mining and logging operations, a fully operational and staffed kitchen, a dormitory of 12 beds, a sauna for entertainment and relaxation, and a machine gun turret defense system.

In short, “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. Many also hope the success of “Palworld” would motivate the Pokémon Co. to evolve its game formula and technology.

The game is also the latest target over concerns of artificial intelligence replacing human creativity. Online accusations posit that “Palworld” is created using generative AI technology. However, there is no hard evidence of this. This speculation only hardened into widespread misinformation because people found old tweets of Pocketpair CEO Takuro Mizobe expressing interest in AI technology, and that his company published a game called “AI: Art Impostor.” Numerous executives in various industries are either interested in AI or are heavily invested in it, including Square Enix, the publisher of the upcoming “Final Fantasy VII Rebirth” and multiplayer game “Foamstars,” which the company confirmed used AI for background artwork.

Meanwhile, “AI: Art Impostor” appears to use generative AI as a game mechanic, as it’s a multiplayer party game designed to make the point that AI-driven art is often nonsensical and bad. The game was transparent about its AI usage. Steam recently updated its policy that games on the platform must declare whether they use generative AI to produce content, and “Palworld” does not have this distinction.

The Washington Post tried to contact Pocketpair for comment. A spokesman said the company will respond later as it’s busy with upkeep for the game.

By Monday, industry watchers, online posters and a handful of professional developers posted comparisons of “Palworld” and Pokémon’s uncannily similar 3D creature models.

The evolution of video game design has been very iterative. Even “Super Mario Bros.” reflected elements of the 2D, left-to-right gameplay of “Pac-Land,” a Pac-Man game from 1984. The viral indie hit of 2022, “Vampire Survivors,” lifted its original art assets from the Castlevania game series, while replicating the gameplay of Android game “Magic Survival.” Once the world’s most popular game, “Fortnite” copied its famous battle royale formula from “PUBG: Battlegrounds.”

Regardless of how “Palworld” is created, originality and creativity haven’t always been the highest priorities when it comes to popular entertainment and art. Even now, we are raising a generation whose favorite entertainment program is “Skibidi Toilet,” the YouTube series that ripped assets from classic Valve games like “Half-Life.” Time will tell the tale of the game’s staying power, but “Palworld” and the discussion around it is undeniably a product of our times.

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