Can 2009 Innovate Itself Out of a Recession?S

The past week in gaming news gave us a glimpse into 2009.

It's a year that could witness plummeting sales with Rock Band on the sidelines, Sony's continued struggle to reinvent itself and Nintento working again to innovate with an eye toward new gamers.

It may be Nintendo’s greatest stumbling block.

How do you appeal to novice gamers first dipping their toe into the interactive world of video gaming without turning off the hardcore gamers who are the backbone of most game sales?

A recently uncovered patent filed by Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto may not be the solution to the problem, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

In it Miyamoto, the famed developer behind Mario, Donkey Kong and The Legend of Zelda, describes a sort of cruise control for video games, a system that would allow neophyte gamers to switch back and forth between watching and playing a video game. Think of it as having a buddy around who can play the hardest bits of the game for you, but hands over the controls when things get fun.

The concept would also introduce video play-throughs of a game which a player could bring up as a pop-up window when they get stuck.

“I think this is brilliant,” said Wedbush Morgan Securities analyst Michael Pachter. “This just shows that Nintendo is an adult company that is very sophisticated about who buys their software.”

“I think part of what we are seeing here is Nintendo’s cultural propensity to try interesting things,” said Ben Schachter, video game analyst with UBS Investment Bank

The accidental unveiling of the patent comes at a time when game companies are feeling increasing pressure to innovate in order to avoid the bad news cropping up in the industry lately.

A number of development studios closed up shop over the past few months and earlier this week rumors hit that Sony may cut entire divisions to make themselves more competitive in a number of markets, including video games.

Sony Computer Entertainment seems to be playing the long game in this latest generation of consoles.

“They’re certainly not dying,” Pachter said. “I think they made a strategic decision back in 2004 to over engineer a box and create something they decided in their paternalistic way was better for all of us.

“ I think they’re going to be proven right, in five years we’re all going to want that.”

Schachter agrees, though he says that this past holiday season should be a “Harvard case study on how not to drive your brand.”

In the short term Schachter thinks that Sony has to cut the price of their console and convince game developers that they’re not this generation’s Gamecube.

The video game industry as a whole may soon face similar issues. While sales seem to be holding up, Schachter thinks that a coming drop in music-game sales may change that.

During the Consumer Electronics Show this week Harmonix said they wouldn’t be releasing Rock Band 3 this year, instead focusing their efforts on their upcoming Beatles music game.

That means gamers will need to buy two or three games to make up for not purchasing a new Rock Band, Schachter said. And I think he’s right. Most gamers don’t walk into a store looking to spend a certain amount of money, they come looking for fun, price is often secondary.

But what about that Beatles game?

Too niche, says Schacter, to see the same level of success as Rock Band.