For almost as long as there’s been an App Store, Apple has published a list of the year’s best apps. Once iPhone-centric, it has expanded to cover the iPad, Apple TV, Apple Watch, and Mac, and now spans everything from purely practical wares to games and streaming entertainment.
Apple’s 2020 list—which it’s unveiling today—includes 15 honorees. Some are natural picks: Zoom, for example, is the iPad app of the year. Others you might not know about yet. (Or at least I didn’t.) The company says that it considers technical innovation, user experience, design, and cultural impact—and that this year, it gravitated toward candidates that helped us get through all the disruptions that have made 2020 a challenge, even for those of us who have been pretty lucky, all things considered.
The list, in its entirety:
- iPhone App of the Year: Wakeout (Andres Canella, U.S.)
- iPhone Game of the Year: Genshin Impact (miHoYo, China)
- iPad App of the Year: Zoom (Zoom, U.S.)
- iPad Game of the Year: Legends of Runeterra (Riot Games, U.S.)
- Mac App of the Year: Fantastical (Flexibits, U.S.)
- Mac Game of the Year: Disco Elysium (ZA/UM, U.K./Estonia)
- Apple TV App of the Year: Disney+ (Disney, U.S.)
- Apple TV Game of the Year: Dandara Trials of Fear (Raw Fury, Sweden)
- Apple Watch App of the Year: Endel (Endel, Germany)
- Apple Arcade Game of the Year: Sneaky Sasquatch (RAC7, Canada)
- App Trend of the Year: Shine for helping users practice self-care (Shine, U.S.)
- App Trend of the Year: Explain Everything Whiteboard for helping bring remote classrooms to life (Explain Everything, Poland)
- App Trend of the Year: Caribu for connecting families to loved ones (Caribu, U.S.)
- App Trend of the Year: Pokémon Go for reinventing the way we play (Niantic, U.S.)
- App Trend of the Year: ShareTheMeal for helping users make a difference (United Nations, Germany)
When I chatted with a few of the winning developers earlier this week, the most striking thing I learned was that 2020’s major news stories—the world-changing stuff not obviously related to the app business—had an impact on all of their businesses, each in a different way.
That was most true of Shine, a self-care app—combining meditation, motivational content, journaling, and other features—that’s been around since 2016. Historically, most people have tended to steer clear of talking about their mental health. But Shine cofounder and co-CEO Marah Lidey says that if 2020 has had any upsides, one of them is that it’s led to more honest discussion of the stress we’ve all been under.
“We can all remember those first pandemic calls where you were trying to be normal and check in with people and do work, but everybody wasn’t okay,” she says. “And for the first time, I think we were all saying, ‘I’m not okay. I’m not going to just smile and say I’m doing fine when I’m not.'” That led people who might have previously been resistant to seeking help to be more open to investigating an app such as Shine.
But the pandemic was just the start of it. “The most powerful period was in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and, more specifically, the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd,” says Naomi Hirabayashi, Lidey’s cofounder and co-CEO at Shine. “And what we saw from our community was the need for specificity.” That prompted the company to add BLM-related content aimed at Black Americans as well as material designed to help “non-Black Americans have more understanding and education around the importance of these issues.”
For the U.N.’s World Food Program—the winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize—the COVID-19 pandemic was another crisis on top of the existing ones that already cause food insecurity around the world. Since 2015, the WFP has used an app called ShareTheMeal to raise funds that help feed nearly 100 million people in more than 80 countries, including hot spots such as Yemen, Syria, and Venezuela.
ShareTheMeal aims to make donating an effortless—and therefore irresistible—process. According to Max Costa, who leads the team responsible for the app in Berlin, the pandemic has highlighted the WFP’s importance rather than leaving people too distracted to give to others less fortunate than themselves.
“This has been a super-tough year for the U.S., Europe, and everywhere due to the virus,” Costa says. “And despite that, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of donations. I think this is really an incredible testament to the generosity of our community. But I think we’ve also being able to connect people that are suffering here because of COVID to the big problems COVID is causing somewhere else—like for example in Congo or Bangladesh.”
Even makers of games have seen the impact of 2020’s upheavals. When the pandemic hit, Riot Games was already at work on Legends of Runeterra, a digital card-trading game inspired by its League of Legends multiplayer battle game for Windows PCs and Macs. The company considered delaying its launch, but ultimately decided to go ahead in April.
And it turned out that people stuck at home were eager to discover new games such as Runeterra—which, since its cards are virtual, isn’t faced with the same coronavirus-era challenges as an in-person game like Magic: The Gathering in its traditional dead-tree form.
“It’s just a great tool for them to connect with their friends and their family, to be able to have those kinds of social interactions even when they can’t see each other in person,” says Jeff Jew, executive producer of Legends of Runeterra. “It’s really nice to be able to provide some form of entertainment to people while they’re just waiting for this thing to be over.”
Even games that you can play with others while remaining socially isolated have a physical aspect that has been put on hold in 2020. That’s been the case for miHoYo’s Genshin Impact, an anime-style open-world adventure game that debuted in September—and whose world has already inspired a profusion of fan art, cosplay, and other creativity. But it’s hard for games to fully bust out into the real world when so much of it is on lockdown.
“This year, every country just canceled their gaming events, so we don’t have the chance to meet our players offline, like at E3 or TGS [Tokyo Game Show],” says Wenyi Jin, VP at Shanghai-based miHoYo. “I hope next year the situation is better.” It would be nice to think that Apple’s best apps of 2021, whatever they are, might reflect a year when our digital experiences feel less like a therapeutic respite from the rest of our lives.