As is tradition, the staff at Apple's App Store have picked their favorite iOS titles from 2013. But there's something of a discrepancy between their picks and the games that enjoyed the most downloads or sales.
Of the three games Apple picked for their "best of 2013" list, only one is a free-to-play title: EA and PopCap's Plants vs. Zombies 2. While the grind-heavy progression of this game -- not to mention the "pay-to-cheat" options -- put some people off, it was, at heart, a solid if rather unimaginative sequel to the original Plants vs. Zombies, and one of the more generous free-to-play games out there in terms of the sheer amount of content on offer.
The second runner-up for the year was Device 6, a highly creative piece of interactive fiction that combines intriguing puzzles with well-written prose that, in its creators' own words, "plays with the conventions of games and literature." Our sister site Eurogamer liked it very much.
iOS game of the year in Apple's eyes, though, was Vlambeer's Ridiculous Fishing. In case you've never come across this little gem, the idea is extremely simple: drop your fish-hook into the water to try and get as deep as possible without snagging a fish, then reel it in, attempting to grab as many fish as you can on the way back up. When you break the surface of the water, the fish fly into the air and you mow them down with a selection of heavy firearms.
The brilliant thing about Ridiculous Fishing is that it sounds like such a stupid, simple idea -- and it is, but it's pulled off with Vlambeer's signature flair and made into something much more than it could have been. Over the course of the game's progression, a very subtle and rather melancholic tale is told but never forced down the player's throat -- if you just want to play for a few minutes while waiting for a bus, you absolutely can.
These are three great picks -- and at least two of them deserve considerably more widespread attention than they've had to date. Exposure on the App Store's front page is vital to the success of apps and games, given the sheer volume of new offerings made available each week -- and this is brought very much into focus when you compare Apple's picks with the most popular and top-grossing games of the last year.
The top paid app of the year -- not just among games, but out of the whole App Store -- was Mojang's Minecraft. This isn't a terrible choice, but a mobile phone isn't really the ideal place to play Minecraft. It's followed closely by Angry Birds Star Wars, yet another entry in the interminable franchise. Both are solid enough, for sure, but far from the most interesting things the App Store has to offer.
The Top Free Apps chart makes for more depressing reading. The most-downloaded free app of the year was King's Candy Crush Saga, a creatively bankrupt free-to-play take on Bejeweled's match-3 mechanics with some of the most obnoxious in-app purchase options ever seen. To make matters worse, Candy Crush Saga was also the top-grossing app of the year, despite being "free." This means that people have spent more money on Candy Crush Saga than on games that actually cost money to buy -- even Minecraft, the top-selling paid app in the App Store, couldn't break the top 10.
Other top-grossing apps follow a similar mold -- we've got Supercell's Clash of Clans, EA's The Simpsons: Tapped Out and Kabam's The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle Earth. All of these games are free-to-play titles that sacrifice meaningful gameplay in the name of energy bars, wait timers and other underhanded means of attempting to extract money from players -- and yet they're apparently doing something "right," since people clearly are spending money on these titles to such a degree that some iOS developers and analysts don't even regard pay-up-front apps as a viable option any more.
It's good that Apple has chosen to highlight games other than those that made the most money as its "best of 2013" selection, but all of them seemingly have a long way to go before they can break the stranglehold free-to-play tapfests have on the App Store charts. Why don't you do your bit to help out and try them out for yourself if you haven't already?