In today’s tempestuous times, apps aren’t just tools to help us level a painting or get through the next meeting: They’re our lifeblood, the way we meet with friends, wind down, stay healthy. With COVID-19 confinement and work-from-home policies shaping our daily lives in ways we would have found unthinkable just a year ago (“What do you mean, the movie theater is shutting down??”), the right apps can help us get through it all.
With an eye toward the changing world, Apple today unveiled its picks for the best apps of 2020 — a collection of games, tools, and utilities that have shone throughout this year — and also unveiled a new physical award that the company mailed out to the 15 apps that made the grade. Collectively, they offer an interesting window on the pandemic, as work and school were utterly changed, and entirely new forms of distraction were a must.
“Obviously, things have changed pretty fundamentally,” Matthew Slemon, who leads the product team for Pokémon Go at developer Niantic, told Digital Trends. “What’s the essence of what our game is about, and how do we exist in the world of COVID?”
Our stupid world
The pandemic crisis and the quarantine that has come in its wake have left many people despondent and struggling to cope. Simple routines like eating, sleeping, and exercise are suddenly challenges, and stress has left many paralyzed. What it takes to be healthy (and consequently to feel better about ourselves) isn’t that rigorous, yet it’s hard to commit to daily yoga or a running routine, much less an expensive bike or treadmill.
“Given the challenges we’ve seen, our opportunity to help a little bit has been quite a privilege,” said Andres Canella, co-founder of Wakeout! His app, built with the help of childhood friend Pedro Wunderlich, inspires people to move through short-form videos using nothing but their bodies and the stuff around them: Pillows, pots and pans, and so on.
“We started out with this feeling that we could help people move a little more. Instead of the tradition of workout apps, we wanted something fun and silly that would help people move a little more,” Wunderlich told Digital Trends. Wakeout! has moved millions off the couch and out of the house. And thanks to the new App Clips feature in iOS 14, people can share workouts they like with friends and family. It seems custom-made for today.
Pokémon Go doesn’t seem built for the current moment at all, of course. A feature called Raid Battles encouraged people to band together to battle bosses, which seems out of the question today. So the company rolled out Remote Raid Passes in April. Niantic had a series of popular live events as well, which are also unmanageable now. They went virtual for the first time this year, leading to an unexpected challenge: The team had a commercial designed and ready to go highlighting the Pokémon Go 2020 fest, which it was forced to remake from scratch in a six-week span. It was possible — with a little help from the Dark Side.
“We were partially able to do it because we asked a huge Pokémon fan to do it: Rian Johnson (director of Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi),” said Veronica Saron from Niantic’s marketing team. Despite the changes, the mission hasn’t changed: Keep people active and entertained in a way that isn’t mindless. Indeed, Apple selected Pokémon Go not as one of the best games of the year but as part of a trend it saw in the App Store – a move toward helpfulness.
“Everything in the game has had some changes to it, but throughout, the core hasn’t changed…. We do want you to have the motivation to do something beyond sitting on the couch and watching TV,” Slemon said.
What does helpful mean?
A “Helpfulness” category in Apple’s 2020 awards highlights the trend of Tech for Change in this year’s app crop. Besides Pokémon Go, it includes Share the Meal, an app built by the United Nations’ World Food Programme to help people make a difference; Explain Everything, which helps bring the classroom home; Shine, a self-care app; and Caribu, a tool to help families bridge the newfound gaps in their lives. When you can’t visit grandpa down the street anymore, can an app help?
“We Grew 10x overnight because of the pandemic,” Maxeme Tuchman, co-creator of the Caribu app, told Digital Trends. Seeing a solider holding up a storybook to a video screen to connect with a distant relative inspired her and co-founder Alvaro Sabido; clearly tech could help, they thought, but the current offerings simply weren’t designed with the right user in mind.
“I had gone through this career of trying to fix educational inequities, and I just saw this world of adults fighting adults about adult inequities. This was a tool we could give to families,” she explained. The Caribu app lets people read together, draw together, and more. It’s sort of like FaceTime meets Kindle, Tuchman said.
We’re proud that developers like @Caribu, @HEB & @ShineText are growing their businesses on the App Store. Our iOS developer community now supports 2.1 millions jobs across all 50 states, providing opportunities for Americans in the face of immense challenges https://t.co/2o0JPSAHxZ
— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) September 2, 2020
As the pandemic crisis has unfolded, Sabido and Tuchman tripled their team, leading Apple CEO Tim Cook to tweet about how they were helping grow the job market despite the coronavirus. Through partnerships with Sesame Street, DC Comics, celebrities, and even the New York Giants, the team has pivoted to help where it could.
“We’re proud of how we responded to the pandemic,” she said.
No list of the top apps would be complete without a collection of games, a category that has exploded as people of all ages found themselves with time on their hands. The top games of the year are a grab bag of RPGs and scrollers: There’s Sneaky Sasquatch, the arcade game of the year, and Dandara: Trials of Fear, the Apple TV game of the year, which was inspired by a real-life antislavery warrior.
Genshin Impact, a fantasy role-playing game that brings console quality to the iPhone, has built a fan community during the pandemic, with gamers sharing cosplay, fan art and fiction, and more. But just providing a distraction from the world might be the game’s biggest gift.
“While this whole thing has been very rough on people, games have become one of the primary vehicles to have experiences with their friends.”
“One fan told us he was very stressed from commuting. Now it’s the part of the day that he looks forward to the most,” Forrest Liu, president of miHoYo, the studio behind the game, told Digital Trends.
A similar story emerges from Jeff Jew, executive producer behind the new Legends of Runeterra, a strategy card game set in the world of League of Legends.
“While this whole thing has been very rough on people, games have become one of the primary vehicles to have experiences with their friends,” Jew explained. Runeterra builds on the popularity of collectible card games such as Magic the Gathering, and by moving from a physical deck to a digital one, he was able to improve upon the experience and address the limitations of existing games. The digital world allows Runeterra to dive into the art and characters, with animations and deep graphics that are simply impossible in the physical world.
“In the West, we’ve seen a huge surge in people playing,” Jew told me.
The complete list of winners for 2020:
- iPhone App of the Year: Wakeout! (Andres Canella, USA)
- iPhone Game of the Year: Genshin Impact (miHoYo, China)
- iPad App of the Year: Zoom (Zoom, USA)
- iPad Game of the Year: Legends of Runeterra (Riot Games, USA)
- Mac App of the Year: Fantastical (Flexibits, USA)
- Mac Game of the Year: Disco Elysium (ZA/UM, U.K./Estonia)
- Apple TV App of the Year: Disney+ (Disney, USA)
- 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, USA)
- 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, USA)
- App Trend of the Year: Pokémon GO for reinventing the way we play (Niantic, USA)
- App Trend of the Year: ShareTheMeal for helping users make a difference (United Nations, Germany)
- The best iPhone games currently available (January 2021)
- How to play Pokémon GO
- Apple customers spent record amount on apps on New Year’s Day
- The best fitness apps for the iPhone
- The future of reality: Next-Gen AR smartglasses make Google Glass look quaint