Sony’s major upcoming update to PlayStation Plus Consolidates its existing services into three tiers, the two most expensive of which offer players hundreds of games from PlayStation’s current and back catalog. As the PS5 is only backward compatible with the PS4, these new plans are the only way for players to access PS1, PS2, PS3, and PSP games on their latest PlayStation systems. Most of those libraries will be directly downloadable, but there is a major outlier: PlayStation 3 games will only be available to stream, as has been the case on PlayStation Now.
This disparity is disappointing, especially for fans with poor internet speeds that cannot reliably stream games. Following the lack of PS3 backward compatibility on the PS4, the announcement once more raised the question: Why won’t Sony emulate its 2006 console, which has a fantastic library of games, and could there be technical issues preventing them from doing so? To find out, I spoke to the developers of fan-made PS3 emulators to understand why the unique construction of the PS3 hardware continues to haunt the PlayStation. IGN has also reached out to PlayStation for comment on the lack of PS3 downloads for PlayStation Plus, but did not hear back by the time of publishing.
The primary roadblock to proper, official PS3 emulation could be that, well, the console was built differently. The PlayStation 3 utilized a unique structure that differed from the relatively simpler Xbox 360 and PC architectures at the time that Sony called “Cell.” The PS3 console’s CPU was comparable to the Xbox 360, running at 3.2GHz, but Sony aimed to bolster the CPU’s capabilities by including seven floating co-processors, aka the PS3’s synergistic processing units (SPUs), which were infamously complex for developers.
Here’s a brief rundown of how it worked. The processor’s setup allowed the central power processing element (PPE) to offload complex code to the extra cores. Those SPUs could handle parallel mathematical calculations, which made them perfect for intricate physical simulations, like collisions, clothing, and particles. Sony flirted with the concept in the PlayStation 2but boosted the power in the PS3 with a floating speed that was forty times faster than its predecessor.
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Harnessing the PS3’s potential – back then and in the present day – wasn’t easy in large part because the process described above wasn’t automatic. Developers had to code this handoff themselves, creating a multi-step process that resulted in a steep learning curve for programming on the PlayStation 3. We’re all familiar with the time pressures developers face and the prevalent problem of crunch that may arise as a symptom of these time pressures. When developing for multiple platforms, developers regularly ignored the complicated SPUs and just used the PPE. When it came time to port Bayonetta to PlayStation 3, Platinum Games producer Atsushi Inaba described to Edge Magazine how Platinum handed the project off to an in-house team at Sega. A failure to utilize the SPUs resulted in terrible performance compared to other platforms. Inaba called it at the time “the biggest failure for Platinum so far, the one that really sticks in my mind.” A similar story surrounds the problematic PS3 port of The Orange Boxwhich Valve handed off to EA rather than tackling it themselves. Simply, re-engineering games for a completely new system unlike any other was a time- and cost-prohibitive process, which meant that the Cell processor wasn’t used anywhere near its full extent.
Despite sinking millions into Cell architecture, the complexity of its SPU hardware contributed, in part, to a slow start for the PlayStation 3. Add onto that the PS3’s much higher retail price and the extra year the Xbox 360 enjoyed ahead of its release, and The PS3’s potential wasn’t realized until late in its life-cycle.
Sony was aware of the issues its console caused developers, though wasn’t particularly apologetic about it at the time. “We don’t provide the ‘easy to program for’ console,” CEO Kaz Hirai said told Official PlayStation Magazine in 2009. “A lot of people see the negatives of it, but if you flip that around, it means the hardware has more to offer.”
Some developers weren’t shy about criticizing Sony’s choices for the PlayStation 3’s architecture back then. Gabe Newell, speaking to Edge Magazine, branded it “a waste of everybody’s time.” Kazunori Yamauchi, creator of Gran Turismo, recently told TheGamer that the “PS3 was a nightmare” and that “the hardware was so complex and difficult to develop on.” A 2007 doctoral study by Daniele Paolo Scarpazza, Oreste Villa and and Fabrizio Petrini supported this, finding that “software that exploits the Cell’s potential requires a development effort significantly greater than traditional platforms.”
Thirteen years later, the PS3 architecture is still causing headaches.
There are several unofficial PS3 emulators available today. On one of them, RPC3, 65% of the PS3’s catalog is currently playable. I asked its developers about the problems emulating the PS3.
One of RPCS3’s developers, Whatcookie pointed to the PlayStation 3’s “128 byte read / write as well as the quirky floating-point format that the SPUs support” as the major bottleneck in reaching RPCS3’s stated goal of 100% compatibility. The PlayStation 5 runs on an x86 CPU like most computers. It’s one reason the PS5 is backward compatible with the PS4, another x86 system. Both have cache lines of 64 bytes, as opposed to the PS3’s 128 bytes per line.
“128 bytes of data can be written ‘atomically’ on PS3, meaning it appears as a single event, while on a system with 64-byte cache lines it appears as two events,” Whatcookie explained.
Cache in this context is essentially chunks of memory. Splitting the data into blocks – often called lines – makes the size of that memory more manageable. But it means that the PlayStation 3, which can read and write 128-byte cache lines can assimilate its own data much faster and more consistently than the PS5 which reads and writes in 64-byte blocks. This incompatibility can cause major performance issues on top of those already caused by trying to simulate the console’s Cell structure.
An alternative would be to install SPU furniture on the PlayStation 5 motherboard, which essentially means building PS3 hardware into the PS5. It’s a method Sony implemented on the PlayStation 2 and early models of the PS3, both of which included CPU architecture from their predecessors to allow backward compatibility with previous models. But of course, Sony removed those elements from the PlayStation 3 after it initially retailed at $ 300 more than the Xbox 360 in its earlier run of consoles. Adding that technology now would not only drive up console prices, but leave those who already own a PS5 without access to that functionality.
One user on the RPCS3 Discord told me that “developing an emulation solution for the SPUs would be ridiculously expensive [for Sony] and makes no financial sense. ” Whatcookie also thought this was the case, referencing that Sony has only managed to emulate the PS1, PS2, and PSP for two generations.
“If they were making huge money from these emulators, then I think they’d put huge money into it,” Whatcookie said.
Depending on how you look at it, Sony’s struggle to emulate the PlayStation 3 is complex or incredibly simple. On one hand, an expensive maze of technological issues makes it appear a quagmire of complications. Yet it all seemingly boils down to the whole process most likely being prohibitively expensive, at least in terms of the interest and profit for PlayStation. This leaves PlayStation players with only a couple of options: Stream PS3 games through PS Now (and eventually PS Plus) or hunt down an old PlayStation 3. Either way, it’s more complicated than simply being able to download games to current consoles, as players will be able to do with PS1, PS2, and even PSP games.
Whatever the case, maybe don’t get rid of your PlayStation 3 just yet.
Geoffrey Bunting is a disabled freelance journalist. As well as IGN, he has written about games, entertainment, accessibility, and more for Wired, Rock Paper Shotgun, Inverse, and others.