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


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.


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]


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.


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.


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.