The miracle of Palworld isn’t its popularity, it’s that it exists at all

How the hell did Palworld happen? In a recent blog post, Takuro Mizobe, the CEO and co-founder of the studio behind the latest mega-hit, provides some clarity. The answer isn’t what any gaming veteran would call “proper game development.” But maybe that’s the secret.

Although Palworld recently hit the second-highest number of concurrent players on Steam, its success was far from assured. The studio worked with several key members who had no or little experience in game development. At the start, it took Pocketpair founder Mizobe an entire month to create one monster model. Mizobe had wanted to make 100 of them. Even other basic organization practices, like creating a budget for the project, didn’t happen.

For these reasons and many more, Mizobe has likened the creation and release of Palworld to being a “miracle.” It was a miracle that the team was actually able to make it. It seemed like a miracle that it was fun. Now, it’s become one of the biggest games on Steam and has sold over 6 million copies at time of publication. From this perspective, Palworld appears to be the fruit of not one miracle, but many. However, if Mizobe’s account shows us anything, it’s that each of these miracles happened because of the people involved — an unusual mix of veterans, up-and-comers, and a junior high graduate with a knack for animation.

An image of a Palworld character looking out over a vast horizon. There’s a volcano in the distance and creatures are walking around in the grass. Image: Pocketpair

In case you’re new to it, Palworld is the latest hit sensation in games. On the surface, it sort of looks like “Pokémon, but with guns.” However, the game, which is out in Steam Early Access now, is much more than that. Sure, it has its fair share of cute Pokémon-like creatures, but it also contains a blend of open-world RPG exploration and survival elements. Prior to Palworld, Pocketpair released three games: Overdungeon, Craftopia, and AI: Art Impostor. According to Mizobe, Palworld couldn’t have happened without any of these games.

“If it weren’t for the phantom first game, which was never released, Overdungeon would not have been born. Without Overdungeon, Craftopia would not have been born. Without Craftopia, Palworld would not have been born. And each game was released with really great difficulties,” Mizobe said in a developer blog translated from Japanese to English via Google Translate.

The development of Palworld was riddled with difficulties. Members of the team didn’t know key skills, like how to build rigs, to help create animations for the Pal characters. Mizobe described other work processes, like file management, as a “mess.” In a particularly stunning example considering the time it would take, the team made the decision to migrate development from Unity to Unreal Engine, when an experienced game developer — a rarity on the team — expressed interest in the project but only knew how to work in Unreal Engine. This decision required the team to pretty much rebuild in the game so far from scratch.

What Mizobe initially imagined as a small four-person project that could just be released to test the waters soon ballooned. Production costs kept climbing and Pocketpair ended up employing a team of 40 people for the game in the end. The studio had seen modest success with the release of Craftopia, but it was possible it wouldn’t be enough to fund its new game. With an unusual degree of transparency by game industry standards, Mizobe talked about how the budget worked, or more so how it didn’t even exist.

“The budget limit is initially until the balance in your bank account reaches zero. When it reaches zero, you can borrow money. In that case, do you need to manage your budget? No, all you have to do is borrow money or release money just before the company goes bankrupt and your account balance drops to zero. Well, we’ll probably be able to develop it for about two more years.

For the time being, I decided to keep making it without worrying about the budget. We want to complete it as soon as possible, so let’s hire a lot of people.”

Mizobe hired a part-time convenience store worker and junior high school graduate who created gun animations as a hobby, and moved them from Hokkaido to Tokyo to become an animator for the game. The person responsible for designing many of the Pals was initially rejected for a job at Pocketpair, but then followed up and ended up becoming central to the development process. There was a more seasoned freelance engineer who helped train the team and remake the game in Unreal Engine, and a veteran developer in animation who helped create a process for mass producing and animating the game’s creatures.

An image of characters and creatures in Palworld sitting down and relaxing by a fire. A green monkey lays in the grass and two people sit by the fire in tall grass. Image: Pocketpair

In Palworld, players might recognize elements likely inspired by a variety of games and series like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Pokémon, survival games like Ark: Survival Evolved, and even Fortnite. Because of this, Palworld can’t really be boiled down to any single game influence. It’s a living mongrel of video games and represents the confluence of several points of inspiration. And yet somehow, it works and has clicked with a massive audience.

In this sense, the game itself mirrors the history of how the developers at Pocketpair created the game: an unusual mix of people and perspectives that somehow come together to form something original and special. Palworld represents the culmination of every stroke of luck and every worker’s contribution and all of the studio’s previous games. It wasn’t about any single defining factor that helped make this game. Mizobe found talented budding developers in unusual places and relied on more senior developers to prop up development. The studio could have run out of money, but it didn’t, and the success of Craftopia brought the team just enough success to create Palworld.

Because of this genuine sense of serendipity — that so many factors of development could come together to make a popular game — there’s almost a sense of wonder that Palworld exists at all, let alone became a hit game. To that end, Mizobe said, “Looking back on the results, it is truly a miracle that Palworld has now been completed and released like this. I can only say that I was lucky.”