The Running Man: behind the sketchbooks of Adam Saltsman's Canabalt

By Brandon Boyer

83.jpg Adam 'Atomic' Saltman's one-button action-opus Canabalt (covered earlier in a previous column) will likely go down as 2009's biggest viral surprise -- to no less even than Saltsman himself, who admitted at this year's Austin GDC Indie Games Fest to squandering and then scrambling to capitalize on the success the game near instantly saw (the first 120,000 players the game captured by its second day, and subsequent 650,000 by the week's end, saw none of the cross-indie/Twitter/iPhone port promotions subsequently rolled out as quickly as possible). But there's almost no one in the industry that hasn't taken serious note of its acclaim and wondered what magic formula there might be hidden in its design that can be replicated elsewhere. And so -- in service to fans, would-be devs and established designers alike -- Saltsman has provided us with his sketches and notes, illustrating each leap to logical leap he made in finishing that first version. canabalt_slide.jpg Interestingly -- though maybe not so surprisingly, given that the game was created for the Experimental Gameplay's 'Bare Minimum' challenge -- the documents show a game more complex than what we eventually received, with its anonymous runner able to pull off sliding ducks on top of his now-singular jump, and 'edit' and 'profile' modes obviously stripped from the game (indeed, the entire game seems to now live inside what Saltsman originally had planned as a 'quick race' option). And so, what follows is the necessarily brief notes and calculations for a necessarily brief production, neither any less worse off for it: let us know if you crack Saltsman's magic code. [Canabalt fan art at top by Georgia 'garlicbug' Hurbgljjsa, via Pauli MadamLuna Kohberger's BBS, via Saltsman]
canabalt_notes1.jpg Saltman's first page shows the rooftop decorations that would eventually make it into the game, as well as the first try at the fine-mist-making dropped bomb, with all other front menu options (and what appears to be a Mirror's Edge inspired vent system) having been stripped from the completed game. canabalt_notes2.jpg More Mirror's Edge parkour-acrobatics having never made it in are shown above, in the first sketchy mockup of how the runner would eventually move, along with Saltsman eschewing a day/night progression for the simple black and white palette the game would take on. mockup.jpg And finally, the first color sketch of the look of the final game, and the first evidence of its un-expounded-on far-backstory with the giant invaders in the far background, and the military-dropship-esque vehicles passing in mid-ground. Also, note back to page one to see Saltsman arguing with himself over the size of the game's John Woo-esque scattered doves. If you haven't already, by all means play the final game itself at its official site, and pick up its essential iPhone port at the App Store, then check either the unofficial Twitter leaderboards set up by CapnDesign or Onstuimig to see just where you rank in the eternal race.

Published 11:00 am Wed, Nov 11, 2009

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18 Responses to “The Running Man: behind the sketchbooks of Adam Saltsman's Canabalt

  1. Santa's Knee says:

    I have absolutely no idea what the hell this is, and with all of the adjectives being vomited into this article – I have no interest in knowing…

  2. periphera says:

    I’ve been in game design for 10 years, and I’ve never seen a design doc that wasn’t full of unimplemented features. Sometimes you run out of time/resources, but most often the game goes in a different direction once it leaves paper and enters play.

    With a game as simple and beautiful as Canabalt, would you really want more features?

  3. Mantolith says:

    Good stuff, Brandon. Being is that Adam actually employs his sketchbook effectively, this was totally appropriate. *muah*

  4. Anonymous says:

    I love this game ’cause it’s a quick way to raise my blood pressure when i’m feeling sleepy. I am super excited to see the sketches.

  5. willhopkins says:

    This game makes my day. The design stuff notes and sketches are really neat. Interesting process.

  6. Kimmo says:

    V2 needs a less sensitive response to how long you hold the button so it’s actually possible for normal humans to control the size of the jump, and some way of preventing the many impossible situations that crop up.

    Then I’d play it all day.

  7. Anonymous says:

    yea i designed it on a chiclet keyboard and did not notice that it was vicious hard to play on a regular keyboard until like two weeks after it was released…lesson learned :)

  8. benher says:

    Love love love for this game… but reading the notes and gaining insight into the creator’s head is double-plus great. Aesthetically Reminds me of “Out of the World”.

    I know the point was to make a simple game, but I’d be psyched for a few more levels, roof changes as you go along, etc.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Excuse me, I’m madamluna–I’m flattered that you’d think that that Canabalt art is mine, but I just run the oekaki board it came from. The original picture ( ) is by GB.

    It’s a lovely game, though, and this is a pretty enlightening article. Thanks!

    • Brandon Boyer says:

      Thanks for the correction madamluna! I tried tracking it down further, but you were as far as I could get!

  10. Anonymous says:

    It kinda reminds me a little of Another World, but that might be the simple mechanics and flat style

  11. WeightedCompanionCube says:

    It was called Out Of This World here in the states, but yes, that was my first thought too.

  12. SeattlePete says:

    I got the iPhone/Pod port and play it religiously. Every morning for the past 2 weeks I’ve been tap-tap-taping away on my iPod on the crapper. Is it weird that I only play this while sitting on the John? Something about it just get me GOING – if you know what I mean.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I’m hoping there’ll eventually be an Android port… iPhones aren’t that special. :(

  14. Anonymous says:

    Periphera: Actually i’d like some features implented: A game mode in which you should avoid boxes. I found that against my friends it was more fun to compete in these “shorter runs”, where it was all about reflexes. Looking at the scores 30000m+ it gets pretty damn boring already at 5000m.

    ps: When i first played the game i actually thought you were supposed to avoid the boxes.

  15. Anonymous says:

    you can avoid them and some are definitely strategically placed to slow you down. hint: for super long scores its easier to take a break at about 5000m intervals.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I love it! Nothing more, nothing less…