January 2021 Update


2021 is here (and this post is a bit later than we hoped)! At NovaDawn we’re not just celebrating the end of 2020, but also just over 1 year of EXIM development. 

Even though EXIM has been an idea for a lot longer than a year, we’ve been working on it as our sole project since December 2019. We still have a long way to go and didn’t reach all of the goals we really hoped we’d complete last year (including posting more on this blog…) but when we created those goals, we had no idea 2020 wouldn’t be the most encouraging year for a new project. Our big goal for the year is to create a playable demo, which means the game will be nearing it’s alpha stage. In order to do that though, we have smaller goals in the meantime.

Now that we’re well into the January sprint we’re looking to get some pre-alpha gameplay up and running. With basic versions of the UI’s and some of the systems already in place, the focus is on fine tuning our initial plans and getting them to a point that we can get a feel for them as a player.

We’re also hoping to start finalising all character designs so we can confidently create more sprites and models. We announced our first character earlier this month, Annie (if you missed it you can read the post here!), and with her we also revealed some of our plans for the game in terms of look and some functionality.

EXIM, like the games that inspired it, is a VN for the most part, but with aspects that we hope will make it more exciting for a general audience. Third person exploration in 3D environments and animated cutscenes will help us breathe more life into the characters and step away from the point and click detective formula to try new ideas.

Even though we still have a lot of work to do we hope to have some more posts coming in the near future, revealing more characters and taking a closer look at our design process and how all of our characters come into existence. 

We’ll also start diving into some aspects of our pre-alpha gameplay, starting with the crucial point in each chapter; the Inquiry that uncovers the culprit and decides their fate.

Annie Lim - Character Design

A character profile for Annie Lim, including an anime-esque drawing of a young woman who is posing with her fingers in a peace sign and one eye closed in a wink. She is southeast Asian, and has dark hair that is tied up in twin buns with an undercut. She is wearing bright blue dungarees which are covered in various patches including a cute frog and bumble bee, and space iconography. Her top, which is purple, features a small rabbit made from ascii art. The image also features a description of her character “Energetic and talkative, Annie isn’t afraid to speak her mind, even if there isn’t much of a filter in place. Despite this she’s usually kind and willing to help her friends in almost any situation. A prodigy when it comes to computer systems, Annie is the youngest crew member, and has been described by professors and colleagues as a genius with a big heart and a glaring lack of common sense.”

Bubbly and excitable, Annie hasn’t always been this way and was originally envisioned as a down to earth electrician called Colette. Of all the characters Annie has had some of the biggest changes since the initial vision for her. She was designed as a practical middle aged woman, who although not antagonistic, kept to herself. However, we realised early on that we needed more characters with chipper personalities, finding that too many were cynical or middle ground. As one of the more amenable crewmates Annie seemed to fit the bill for some big changes.

She was one of the few characters to have a major colour overhaul, giving her a brighter more colourful “bubble-gum” palette that fits in nicely with some of the other engineers onboard the ship (who you’ll meet later on).

Two early concepts for Annie. Both are the same aside from the colours of her overalls, with red on the left and a light blue on the right.
Once upon a time Annie knew how to wear clothing properly.

In a cast of colourful characters she was standing out for the wrong reasons, appearing somewhat bland when stacked up against other characters, something that didn’t line up with the changes we wanted to make for her. The change in palette, personality and profession meant Annie was one of the first to receive a redesign. We decided to lower her age (there are still plenty of older female characters that take centre stage) and making her appear more quirky, so that her personality was immediately obvious.

Despite trying to stay away from tropes, with the number of characters at the beginning of the game, and the amount of time the player would initially get to spend with each one before potentially having to decide their fate, it felt important that even if players couldn’t remember individual character names they still left an impression. This meant that early in development we accepted that we couldn’t completely avoid established archetypes, initially fitting some of the characters into stereotypes the player would find recognisable while leaving them room to grow. For Annie it made sense to play into the eccentric hacker girl archetype, expressing both her creativity and ingenuity from the moment she appears on screen.

A screenshot of Annie’s 3D model in-game with a VN overlay. Her model and sprite look skeptical and she is showing off a bracelet on her wrist whilst saying “These bracelets, they’re programmed to only detach when they don’t register a heartbeat. Kinda weird, huh?”
A pre-alpha look at Annie in game (all aspects of the game may be subject to change, and screencaps are purely for illustrative purposes)

Though her different way of seeing things can sometimes be misinterpreted and cause problems, Annie’s often unique take on things makes her willing to see different viewpoints and explore wilder theories. While she’s usually on the more excitable side of things, she takes problems in her stride and get’s to work when things get serious.

With her willingness to consider alternative possibilities and her fierce determination to protect her friends, Annie can be a valuable ally when the tides turn against you, or could her quick mind and alternative way of thinking make her the perfect culprit?

November Update


With the project finally announced it’s time for us to start giving you some insight into the development!

We plan to start posting updates soon, but since we want to go more in depth with our process, we thought it might also be interesting for some if we delved into our decisions when it comes to less visible aspects of the game development process, like internal goals and PR strategy. (This will also probably be very boring for some people. Sorry if you’re those people).

Going forward, alongside posts that take an indepth look into specific aspects of development, we’ll also be making semi-regular general updates. Like this one! In the future we hope to have a graphic outlining our progress on the game as a whole, but for our first general update we’re still working out how to show our progress in a meaningful way.

Our development cycle works in sprints where we set a long list of goals that we plan to try and achieve during that sprint. Typically they work on a 2-month then 1-month alternating pattern. Right now we’re in our November to December sprint and have goals like getting our first trial up and running and completing all of the characters’ almost-final designs.

On the subject of character designs, we plan to start posting character profiles and reveals in the very near future. Previously, when it’s come to announcing characters for games, we’ve gone with a very straight forward approach, simply revealing their name, appearance and description, but with just over 20 characters we imagined stale and repetitive announcements would get boring very fast. We’ll still post and have these condensed profiles available on our website as and when they’re announced, but we also wanted to dive into the thoughts behind the designs and their evolution over time. 

With the game being very story focussed there will be some things that we’ll have to avoid talking about so as not to give anything away, but I still hope that with the character reveals we can give a glimpse into our process and how we make design and narrative decisions as a small indie studio. 

As much as we want this blog to garner interest for EXIM, we also want to provide resources and explanations for some of the things we learned whilst developing our game, so other small indies can potentially learn from our triumphs and our shortfalls.  

As well as avoiding some topics, there are other measures we’ve put in place to avoid spoilers for the game, after all, at it’s heart EXIM is a murder mystery game. We’re trying to make the story mean more than just plot twists, and make the journey as interesting as the reveal, but want to keep the story close to our chest to make it as exciting as it can be. 

To avoid any possible implications, we wanted to release characters in an order where we aren’t swayed by their importance to the story. We found when making a decision that no matter what order we chose we would always be unconsciously swayed by the knowledge we had about these characters. We mentioned Danganronpa as one of our inspirations, and for anyone who is familiar with the series, we have a similar setup. The victim and culprit of each chapter is picked from the pool of existing characters, and revealing somebody as a victim can sometimes be just as shocking as revealing a culprit. As a result, a character’s perceived importance could sway the audience’s opinion of them.

In the end we realised that we wanted a neutral schedule, one that isn’t dictated by the way the game plays out, and so decided to announce them alphabetically. So coming soon we’ll have some analysis on our first character, Annie!