“We’re trying to drive change": Meet three App Store Award-winning teams
December 7, 2023
Every year, the App Store Awards celebrate exceptional apps that improve people’s lives while showcasing the highest levels of technical innovation, user experience, design, and positive cultural impact.
This year’s winners were drawn from a list of 40 finalists that included everything from flight trackers to retro games to workout planners to meditative puzzles. In addition to exhibiting an incredible variety of approaches, styles, and techniques, these winners shared a thoughtful grasp and mastery of Apple tools and technologies.
For the team behind the hidden-object game Finding Hannah, their win for Cultural Impact is especially meaningful. “We’re trying to drive change on the design level by bringing more personal stories to a mainstream audience,” says Franziska Zeiner, cofounder and managing director of the Fein Games studio, from her Berlin office. “Finding Hannah is a story that crosses three generations, and each faces the question: How truly free are we as women?”
The Hannah of Finding Hannah is a 39-year-old Berlin resident trying to navigate a career, relationships (including with her best friend/ex, Emma), and the meaning of true happiness. Players complete a series of found-object puzzles that move along the backstory of Hannah’s mother and grandmother to add a more personal touch to the game.
We’re trying to drive change on the design level by bringing more personal stories to a mainstream audience.
Franziska Zeiner, Fein Games co-founder and managing director
To design the art for the game’s different time periods, the team tried a different approach. “We wanted an art style that was something you’d see more on social media than in games,” says Zeiner. “The idea was to try to reach people who weren’t gamers yet, and we thought we’d most likely be able to do that if we found a style that hadn’t been seen in games before. And I do think that added a new perspective, and maybe helped us stand out a little bit.”
Pixelmator, the team behind Mac App of the Year winner Photomator, is no stranger to awards consideration, having received multiple Apple Design Awards in addition to their 2023 App Store Award. The latter is especially meaningful for the Lithuania-based team. “We’re still a Mac-first company,” says Simonas Bastys, lead developer of the Pixelmator team. “For what we do, Mac adds so many benefits to the user experience.”
To start adding Photomator to their portfolio of Mac apps back in 2020, Bastys and his team of engineers decided against porting over their UIKit and AppKit code. Instead, they set out to build Photomator specifically for Mac with SwiftUI. “We had a lot of experience with AppKit,” Bastys says, “but we chose to transition to SwiftUI to align with cutting-edge, future-proof technologies.”
The team zeroed in on maximizing performance, assuming that people would need to navigate and manipulate large libraries. They also integrated a wealth of powerful editing tools, such as repairing, debanding, batch editing, and much more. Deciding what to work on — and what to prioritize — is a constant source of discussion. “We work on a lot of ideas in parallel,” Bastys says, “and what we prioritize comes up very naturally, based on what’s ready for shipment and what new technology might be coming.” This year, that meant a focus on HDR.
We had a lot of experience with AppKit, but we wanted to create with native Mac technologies.
Simonas Bastys, lead developer of the Pixelmator team
How does Bastys and the Pixelmator team keep growing after so long? “This is the most exciting field in computer science to me,” says Bastys. “There’s so much to learn. I’m only now starting to even understand the depth of human vision and computer image processing. It’s a continuous challenge. But I see endless possibilities to make Photomator better for creators.”
To create the Cultural Impact winner Unpacking, the Australian duo of creative director Wren Brier and technical director Tim Dawson drew on more than a decade of development experience. Their game — part zen puzzle, part life story — follows a woman through the chapters of her life as she moves from childhood bedroom to first apartment and beyond. Players solve puzzles by placing objects around each new dwelling while learning more about her history with each new level — something Brier says is akin to a detective story.
“You have this series of places, and you’re opening these hints, and you’re piecing together who this person is,” she says from the pair’s home in Brisbane.
Brier and Dawson are partners who got the idea for Unpacking from — where else? — one of their own early moves. “There was something gamelike about the idea of finishing one box to unlock the one underneath,” Brier says. “You’re completing tasks, placing items together on shelves and in drawers. Tim and I started to brainstorm the game right away.”
While the idea was technically interesting, says Dawson, the pair was especially drawn to the idea of unpacking as a storytelling vehicle. “This is a really weird example,” laughs Dawson, “but there’s a spatula in the game. That’s a pretty normal household item. But what does it look like? Is it cheap plastic, something that maybe this person got quickly? Is it damaged, like they’ve been holding onto it for a while? Is it one of those fancy brands with a rubberized handle? All of that starts painting a picture. It becomes this really intimate way of knowing a character.”
There was something game-like about the idea of finishing one box to unlock the one underneath.
Wren Brier, Unpacking creative director
Those kinds of discussions — spatula-based and otherwise — led to a game that includes novel uses of technology, like the haptic feedback you get when you shake a piggy bank or board game. But its diverse, inclusive story is the reason behind its App Store Award nod for Cultural Impact. Brier and Dawson say players of all ages and backgrounds have shared their love of the game, drawn by the universal experience of moving yourself, your belongings, and your life into a new home. “One guy even sent us a picture of his bouldering shoes and told us they were identical to the ones in the game,” laughs Brier. “He said, ‘I have never felt so seen.’”