Posted on January 19, 2010 by Doolwind

Virgin Play Testers

How many virgins have played your game?  Do you make sure they’re virgins before they play?  You need at least one virgin per week to keep you on track and you should be filming them!

What are virgin play testers?

A virgin is anyone who has never played nor seen someone play your game before.  That second part is important.  If Bob is watching Jim play your game then both Bob and Jim are no longer virgins.

They are equivalent to someone downloading the demo of your game and firing it up for the first time.  They should come from your target audience and preferably be scattered throughout this demographic.

Why do you need virgin play testers?

People have a short attention span these days.  You only have minutes to convince someone your game is worth buying.  Watching a virgin play your game lets you watch the experiences every player will go through when they first play it.  This is absolutely vital if you want to make your game playable and get a conversion.

Gladwell in Outliers has the 10,000 hour rule: the time it takes to become proficient in an activity.  I have the 1,000 hour rule.  After 1,000 hours working on (and playing) your game you can’t objectively determine its quality. The only caveat to this rule is that after a year of not having anything to do with the game your virgin status is reset.  This doesn’t really help in the world of game development as you can rarely take a year off.  It’s much easier to just go out and find virgins. The bottom line is that the only way you can experience what your game is like for a virgin is watching them play.

What’s the best process?

Here are some simple rules to help you:

  • Video tape everything – If possible, try and get the game and their hands in the shot at the same time.  This lets you see what buttons/sticks they are pressing at different stages, particularly if they get stuck
  • Don’t help – If you have to help them your game needs some major changes.  Imagine that same person sitting at home without you there; they will most likely give up on the game.
  • Get them to say what they are thinking – The best way to find out when they are stuck, bored, excited, surprised or confused is to get them to tell you what they are thinking as they play through the game
  • Don’t dismiss anything – No matter how trivial a comment is you need to take it on board.  Even if the person dismisses their comment later you should take notice of it.  On a number of occasions people would say a particular part of the game wasn’t a problem after having it explained and it’s easy to then ignore that issue.
  • Fix the problems – This is vital.  There’s no point getting virgins in to play the game if you don’t fix problems they find.  This might seem like a simple idea, but it’s important you keep a record of every issue and resolve them.

Where can you find virgin play testers?

There are 4 main places you can find virgins to play test your game:

  1. Within your company – If you work for a large company, start internally.  This reduces NDA and other issues, helps build community within the company and encourages other teams to start virgin play testing if they don’t already
  2. Friends and family – The next best step is people you know and trust.  You’ll still want them to sign an NDA, but there’s less chance they’ll break it.  This is also a great way to catch up with your partner who you haven’t seen since before crunch started.
  3. Local game development education institutions – Go to your local game education centre and put up a sign on the notice board reading “Get your name in the credits of a game, right now!”  I guarantee* at least 90% of them will jump at the opportunity.  This also has the secondary benefits of letting you scope out talent and you might even get some good suggestions for your game.
  4. Everyone else – This is the most important and largest group.  Grab random people off the street or from your local video game shop.  You want to be taking a large cross reference of people here.  It’s also a good idea to find some people outside your target audience.  You may find the game appeals to a larger audience, or that making some small tweaks will broaden your audience substantially.  Free beer and/or pizza is usually payment enough for people to sit and play games for a few hours.

*Not a guarantee


I’d like to say a big thanks to Matt Ford for a lot of the ideas from this post.

I was blown away by how important it was to watch virgins playing our game each and every week.  It does take time and resources, but it’s well worth the effort.  It helps keep you on track and focussing on the initial user experience, the most important part for making the sale.

Go out right now, find someone that hasn’t played your game before, sit them down and watch them play.  I guarantee* you’ll learn something about your game that will make it better.

*This one is a guarantee (unless you’re a lawyer)