Finding the perfect place to hang out can be tricky—both in and out of VR. Now, there’s a new solution to this timeless social dilemma in Half + Half, a new social experience from VR developer Normal. Built as a social hub for people to explore, Half + Half delivers a suite of surreal spaces and games anyone can pick up and play, and it’s out today on Oculus Quest and the Rift Platform with full cross-buy support.
Building the perfect hangout spot isn’t easy. Half + Half features five unique spaces to jump into, either alone or with friends, and each is the result of rigorous playtesting. “Every space in the game followed a different journey to completion,” says Founder of Normal Max Weisel. “And there are hundreds of prototypes that hit the cutting room floor.” You can play mini-games in some of the spaces, like a virtual version of hide-and-seek, or you can dive into a freeform swimming area to explore with whomever you want.
Getting the virtual locations to feel right was only half the challenge; each place also had to look just right. The balance between form and function is essential in any meeting place, virtual or otherwise if it’s going to spark any meaningful social interaction. “At the end of the day, Half + Half is designed to help you connect with other people,” says Weisel. “Oh, and also to make you look as ridiculous as possible in real life. I really hope both of those things come true.”
To learn more about Half + Half’s unique spin on virtual hangouts, we talked with Normal Founder Max Weisel.
How would you describe Half + Half to someone new to VR or new to multiplayer gaming?
This is a tough one. When I first started Normal, the most compelling experiments I created in VR were all multiplayer. You really feel like you’re in the same space as another person, even if you both look like blobs. Half + Half is the culmination of four years of multiplayer research at Normal. We’ve created warm, rich, and organic spaces for you to hang out with people. We’ve spent countless hours tweaking our blobby avatars to communicate well through body language and to feel approachable in VR.
I often think of Half + Half like going to the park. There’s a reason we don’t just hang out with our friends in an empty room. We like beautiful spaces, background noise, and things to do while we socialize. Half + Half is a rich set of spaces and minigames that are designed to improve the quality of the time you spend connecting with people you’d normally talk to on the phone.
What experiences can players expect in Half + Half ? Which is your favorite and why?
We’ve created five gorgeous spaces. They’re really hard to describe as a whole, but some of them, like Glide or Swim, are open-ended spaces to enjoy with friends. Some of these spaces, like Hide + Seek, have mini-game mechanics where the person hiding is three inches tall and the person seeking is the size of a building.
Even though it’s the simplest, Swim is my personal favorite right now. Two years ago, I moved to New York, and I don’t see my friends from California very often. For the last few months of development, I would hop into Half + Half with them and catch up in Swim. There’s something special about floating in that space with your friends as you talk about your week. It’s a feeling I could never explain in writing, but you’d understand it within seconds of being in there with someone you know.
What inspired Half + Half’s whimsical, cartoon-like atmosphere and vibe?
I think the whimsical feeling comes from me, and the visual aesthetic and vibe comes from our designer Dave Chenell. He’s an absolute genius. In 2014, I was invited to go to Japan for a program called The Kakehashi Project. They flew a few designers from America to Japan for a week to learn about Japanese design. In one of the talks by Noriko Kawakami of 21_21 Design Sight, she spoke on the role of cuteness in Japanese design. She mentioned that technology is designed to be in service of other people and how cuteness was in service of making technology feel approachable. This was such a beautiful way to think about design. It really stuck with me.
When I started working on VR, everything felt really cold and sharp. All of my friends outside of tech were really turned off by how intimidating the hardware was, and the experiences did very little to improve on that. I knew in order for VR to really work it needed to feel approachable. This has been a driving force in everything Normal creates, all the way back to our drum keyboard Cutie Keys.
While searching for a visual designer and 3D artist to work with, I found Dave’s work and immediately fell in love. His aesthetic embodies all of these values and takes it a few steps further.
Did Normal’s unique work culture play a role in the game’s overall design and development?
Oh, definitely. Since the start of Normal, everyone on the team has worked remotely. I talk about it at length in our blog post Working Remotely in VR & AR, but in short, we actually work together in VR every day. Most of our meetings occur in Half + Half itself. Whenever someone creates a new design or prototype, we all hop into VR together and try it out. We have the ability to hop into the game as a team and discuss what we’re working on and provide feedback. It’s the ideal space to collaborate, whether you’re a remote team or not.
How did you go about building and testing each of the game’s multiplayer experiences?
This is a very difficult question to answer. Every space in the game followed a different journey to completion. And there are hundreds of prototypes that hit the cutting room floor. Our process involves a lot of experimentation and chasing of ideas that feel good, even if we can’t explain why.
How does something like Hide + Seek work in VR? Did you test multiple versions?
Hide + Seek went through many, many iterations. It’s a completely different game than when we first started. Originally, the goal was to blend into the environment. The hiders looked like abstract geometry from the space, and you would hide in plain sight. We tried so hard to make this concept work. It felt so special, but there were a few minor issues that caused it to break down.
In our internal collaboration tool, called Normal Chat, we made some experiments that played with scale and it was incredibly compelling. It’s like nothing we’d ever tried before, but there’s no learning curve.
In a brief moment of panic, I scrapped our entire Hide + Seek prototype and tried Hide + Seek where hiders were tiny and seekers were huge. It felt incredibly good, but we effectively had to start over. We crushed ourselves to redesign the entire space and game mechanic to get it ready for launch, but we ended up with a game that I think is truly unique to VR and like nothing anyone has ever played before.
How will the game help friends (and strangers) connect in novel ways through VR?
Half + Half was designed from the very beginning with this in mind. The avatars and gorgeous spaces are designed to help you connect with people you know, and the minigames are designed to help you enjoy the spaces with people you don’t.
What do you hope people get out of their time with Half + Half ?
At the end of the day, Half + Half is designed to help you connect with other people. Oh, and also to make you look as ridiculous as possible in real life. I really hope both of those things come true. Everyone fears VR will replace the little time we spend away from our phones and computers, and that we’ll soon spend all of our time in VR. However, my goal with Half + Half is the opposite. I’d like to take the time we already spend on computers and make it higher quality. I’d like Half + Half to make the time we spend talking to our friends on the internet feel like time well spent.
What’s next for Normal? Is there anything on the horizon you’d like to tease?
There are a million things I’d like to tease, but nothing I can talk about just yet!