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Character Design in the Sanctum Series

Coffee Stain Studios' Armin Ibrisagic talks about their efforts taken during Sanctum 1 and Sanctum 2 to design diverse playable characters that differ from the industry norms.

Character design at Coffee Stain Studios


Coffee Stain Studios’ was founded 2010 by nine students from the University of Skövde. The first PC game the studio made was Sanctum, which was developed while studying at the University and released 2011 on Steam. The game sold quite well and enabled the founders to start their own game studio.


Back when the studio was started, we were unhappy with stereotypical character designs in games, but we wanted to show our dissatisfaction in a subtle and smooth way. We felt that the best way to change the way characters are being portrayed in games today was simply to show how we want them to look instead. Furthermore, we figured that male power-fantasy protagonists are so overused today that they have become a cliché. Designing characters that differ from the norm wouldn’t just be good for our conscience, it would help our game stand out as something unique.


Initially, we had a lot of different ideas for the main character’s design for Sanctum, but we ended up settling on a tall, brave, aggressive, orange haired woman named Skye. She is the leader of the squad and she specializes in rapid-fire weapons and not giving a shit. One of our major goals with Skye was that we didn’t want her gender to be her main attribute. We have invested a lot of time making sure that Skye is a meaningful, three dimensional character and to convey that she isn’t just a natural leader, she’s also really, really cool.



Another early decision for Sanctum was that we wanted all gear to be practical and designed to fit its purpose, not just to look cool and show off flattering body parts. For example, Skye’s armor is lightweight for improved flexibility and speed, but her huge left glove helps her wield large weapons without being encumbered by them.


Apart from Skye making a reappearance in Sanctum 2, we decided to add 3 new characters, consisting of at least one more female character, one male character, and one character that is completely genderless.


Our male character is Haigen. When he was designed, we tried to draw inspiration from realism and how the world actually looks rather than power fantasy when it came to our first male character design. Just as we didn’t want to enhance the secondary sexual characteristics of Skye, we didn’t want to enhance them for Haigen either.



Since our game takes place in a near sci-fi future setting, we simply asked ourselves “how would a close combat expert look in this setting?” We settled on a skinny, lanky engineer with military gear that augmented his physical ability rather than an abundance of muscles doing the same work. Like Skye, we wanted his gear to be functional, which is why he has a large utility belt, and armor that helps him take some extra punches, but lets him keep the ability to rotate his upper body.


We had some references to Skye having a little sister in Sanctum 1, so we decided to make her into a playable character for Sanctum 2. Sweet is one of the top Core Guardians in the world, just like her sister, except she is more easy-going, creative, and not quite as serious all the time.



When Skye is planning the group’s defence for the next attack, Sweet is mischievously doodling funny faces on her armor (and sometimes other people’s armor too when they aren’t looking). However, when it comes to combat, Sweet is all business. She is the unmatched demolition expert in the team, and is excellent at wielding her rocket launcher. Her lower exoskeleton armor is heavily fortified to withstand big recoils from her weapon, and enables her to do rocket-jumps through the air when she’s surrounded by enemies. Another reason we’re really glad to have Sweet in the game is because we feel that the story and dialogue dynamic between two sisters is a really interesting theme that we wanted to explore in Sanctum 2.

SiMo is our completely genderless character, and was designed primarily as a “blank canvas” character. SiMo takes an introvert role in the team, and prefers to watch and analyze the way humans interact. We felt that this passive introverted role was also not that common in games, so we wanted to give it a shot in Sanctum 2.



We have used the same idea of functional design for SiMo as we used for the other characters - SiMo’s robot hands are immensely steady, which makes for a perfect long-range sniper. Being considerably taller than the average human, SiMo also has an easier time scanning the battlefield and spotting enemies from afar.


Since we’re an indie company, we can never compete with the big studios’ production costs, so we try to stand out in other ways. In the Sanctum series, we have carved out a niche by doing the opposite of what most big companies are doing when it comes to character design, and we’ve had great feedback from our community because of it. We think there is definitely a market for games with characters that aren’t stereotypes just to appeal to mainstream target demographics. In fact, in our most successful game you play as a female goat.

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