Apple unveils 2023 App Store Apps of the Year winners while developers ponder a Vision Pro future
What do all Apple app developers have in common? Little more than an almost preternatural enthusiasm for Apple’s platforms and the opportunity to reach the millions of customers in the Apple ecosystem. What turns this excitement up to 11 for them is the chance to be named one of the best apps of the year. I recently met and spoke with some of the fourteen developers of these now award-winning apps. Obviously I asked them about their apps, but what I really want to know is how they are preparing for Apple’s Vision Pro and spatial computing. To my surprise, some of them answered me.
A week after Apple’s App Store editorial team named the forty finalists, the Cupertino Tech giant announced the fourteen app and game winners: the best iPhone, the best iPad, the best Apple Watch and the best Mac apps . Apple even added a new wrinkle this year: cultural impact winners. Apple also selected an app trend of the year, which was, unsurprisingly, Generative AI, although no specific Generative AI app won an award.
Each App Winner I saw has its own distinctive vision and style, though most manage to rely on Apple-specific device capabilities to do surprising things.
The winners are varied and you can see the full list below. When I spoke to some of the winners who were still basking in the glow of the App Store prize, physically represented by a blue Apple Store icon trophy weighing almost £5, they offered some insights into the Apple app development process and thoughts on a Vision Pro-future. .
A notable winner is Prêt-à-Makeup, from Prêt-à-Template. This iPad app is aimed at professional makeup artists and allows them to create a makeup look on the tablet before applying it to their subjects. That sounds like a pretty simple idea, and little more than larger-than-life Barbie makeup styling head kids were a favorite in the 80s, but I could see the app being something more.
In the demonstration I saw, there were hundreds of different makeup kits and dozens of sample faces. The faces all look like line drawings, but hide detailed 3D maps within them. As soon as we applied digital makeup, both with touch and with Apple Pencil, the skin came to life and even reflected light when we turned the tablet back and forth. It’s an impressive effect.
It seemed like a powerful tool, but because it’s my job, I’m always thinking about the future. I asked how this app might translate to Apple’s next big platform plans: Spatial Computing on the Apple Vision Pro. The developer didn’t hesitate and even revealed that they are a launch partner, adding that they will embrace Spatial Computing in the future.
Lies from P, from NEOWIZ. a rare AAA game that was developed simultaneously on consoles and the Mac and won Mac Game of the year. After playing the compelling game based on the original Carlo Collodi Pinocchio story on a 14-inch MacBook Pro (M3 Max), I agree with the selection. It clearly makes excellent use of the M3 Max’s native rendering capabilities. Neowiz team lead Justin Carnahan told me that while there were initial concerns about the difficulty of building the game for the Mac, it actually went “really smoothly.” Furthermore, Apple Silicon has more than enough power to handle difficult in-game tasks such as volumetric fog effects.
In fact, the game is so immersive that I wondered if they were also thinking about what it would be like to play on the Vision Pro. Carnahan said that bringing the game to Vision Pro is “a possibility,” but quickly added that “they just launched the game two months ago and are just now figuring out what to do going forward.” However, there are already plans for a DLC and a sequel.
I enjoyed my brief foray into Sunblink’s Apple Arcade Game of the Year Hello Kitty Island Adventure, which owes a debt of gratitude to Animal Crossings: New Horizons. Still, I’d never seen anything like this with Hello Kitty before and could understand why fans and Apple like it so much. In fact, Sunblink founder and CEO Julian Farrior told me that Apple was so excited about the game’s success that it convinced Sunblink to build it out further as a subscription-based platform, meaning the game is now released every six weeks gets new updates.
Such an open world and immersive environment seems, at least to me, tailor-made for Vision Pro’s full immersion Spatial Computing.
Farrior told me the company is content with an Apple Arcade game for now. That said, they’re exploring the ‘hooks in Vision Pro’ and exploring ‘technically what it takes’. Personally, I’m excited about the idea of swimming next to a Hello Kitty mermaid.
Not every app winner is this compelling or action-packed. A Cultural Award winner, Fein Games’ Finding Hannah uses the iPad’s larger canvas to paint a colorful and intriguing story about the lives of three women from three different eras: the 1940s, 1970s, and today. The interesting thing about the game is that it is actually a relatively simple puzzle game that uses the puzzles as a gateway to the overarching story. It will be a journey of discovery about the lives of these women and the worlds in which they live.
Fein Games Art director Elena Resko agreed with me that such a game could live in the Vision Pro. “It could be possible. I’m not sure what the interaction would look like. I think it would be exciting to have this new technology for old games as well.”
Photomator, from the UAB Pixelmator Team, which won for best Mac app but also runs on iPhone, is a powerful Machine Learning-powered image editor that makes complex image editing tasks easy. The developers showed me how it could instantly upscale a low-resolution image or, with one tap, transform an SDR Shutterstock image into full HDR glory.
Of all the developers I spoke to, Simonas Bastys, lead developer of the Pixelmator team, was perhaps the most excited about the prospect of developing for the Vision Pro, with one caveat. The last stop before Spatial computing, he told me, is HDR.
He then added, “I think Photomator will work beautifully in Spatial Computing.” He added that they are also Vision Pro launch partners, and “We will be working on spatial photography,” which I took to mean that a future version of Photomator could run in Vision Pro or outside and let you edit the original . 3D spatial photography. That is exciting.
I found Humble Bundle’s Unpacking, which won a Cultural Award, to be one of the more ruminative and interesting apps. It contains no people or characters at all and instead consists of just 8 stages and 32 rooms where you can unpack someone’s stuff. It sounds boring, but it’s actually fascinating, a bit sad, but also relaxing. You can learn a lot about someone by unpacking their things.
I envisioned a future game on the larger Vision Pro stage, where you reach out with your hands and place things on larger virtual shelves. The developer smiled at me and said that while they aren’t ruling anything out, this is probably not the time to be thinking about porting Unpacking to yet another platform. Basically, after all the work of bringing it to the iPad, iOS and consoles, they’re “taking a break”.
There were other cool and inspiring apps like Too good to go, a food waste app from Too Good To Go. As the name implies, the free app connects consumers (or food eaters) with restaurants, bakeries, and supermarkets that prepare to throw away food at the end of the day and sell them the expired food at a huge discount. The service has 85 million users and 150,000 stores in 17 countries. The app is free and looked so easy to use that I thought about trying it out that evening – but then I wouldn’t have had time to write this story.
I also checked out Hooverse’s anime-style Honkai: Star Rail, an iPhone Game of the Year winner. It’s a space fantasy RPG that may not offer enough action for me, but with multiple worlds, planets and players there’s clearly more than enough depth to keep you entertained for hours.
Could such a game work on the Vision Pro? The developer has no firm plans, but confirms that “everyone is excited.”
I wonder if Apple will have added a Vision Pro App of the Year by this time next year.
Here is the full list of winners.
iPhone App of the Year: AllTrails, from AllTrails, Inc.
iPad app of the year: Prêt-à-Makeup, from Prêt-à-Template.
Mac App of the Year: Photomator, from the UAB Pixelmator team.
Apple TV App of the Year: MUBI, from MUBI, Inc.
Apple Watch app of the year: SmartGym, from Mateus Abras.
iPhone Game of the Year: Honkai: Star Rail, from COGNOSPHERE PTE. LTD.
iPad Game of the Year: Lost in Play, from Snapbreak Games.
Mac Game of the Year: Lies of P, from NEOWIZ.
Apple Arcade Game of the Year: Hello Kitty Island Adventure, from Sunblink.
Cultural impact winner:
Pok Pok from Pok Pok
Proloquo from AssistiveWare
Too good to go from Too Good To Go
Unpack from the Humble Bundle
Find Hannah from Fein Games GmbH