Why Sony won’t (probably) emulate the PS3
Sony’s big upcoming Updated 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 previous catalogue. As the PS5 is only backwards compatible with the PS4, these new plans are the only way for gamers to access PS1, PS2, PS3 and PSP games on their latest PlayStation systems. Most of these libraries are available for direct download, but there’s one major anomaly: PlayStation 3 games will only be available for streaming, as was the case with PlayStation Now.
This difference is disappointing, especially for fans with poor internet speeds who can’t reliably stream games. After the lack of PS3 backwards compatibility on the PS4, the announcement again begged the question: why won’t Sony emulate that? 2006 console that has a fantastic games library, 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 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 have received no response at the time of publication.
The main obstacle to proper, official PS3 emulation could be that the console was built differently. The PlayStation 3 used a unique structure that differed from the relatively simpler Xbox 360 and PC architectures of the time, which Sony called “Cell”. The PS3 console’s CPU was comparable to the Xbox 360 and ran at 3.2GHz, but Sony aimed to boost the CPU’s capabilities by incorporating seven floating co-processors, also known as the Synergistic Processing Units (SPUs ) of the PS3, which were notoriously complex for developers.
Here’s a quick rundown of how it worked. The configuration of the processor allowed the central power processing element (PPE) to offload complex code to the additional cores. These SPUs could perform parallel mathematical calculations, making them perfect for complicated physics simulations like collisions, clothing, and particles. Sony flirted with the concept in the PlayStation 2but ramped up the performance in the PS3 at a soaring speed that was forty times faster than its predecessor.
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Realizing the potential of the PS3 – then as now – was not easy in large part because the process outlined above was not automatic. The 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 that Time pressure to which developers are exposed and the predominant problem of crunching that can occur as a symptom of this time pressure. When developing for multiple platforms, developers regularly ignored the complicated SPUs and simply used the PPE. When it came time to port bayonet for PlayStation 3, maker of Platinum Games Atsushi Inaba described it to Edge Magazine how Platinum handed the project off to an internal team at Sega. A bug in using the SPUs resulted in terrible performance compared to other platforms. Inaba called it “the biggest failure for Platinum so far that I really remember”. A similar story surrounds the problematic PS3 port of The orange crateWhich Valve handed over to EA instead of tackling it yourself. Re-engineering games for an entirely new system like no other was simply a time-consuming and costly process, meaning the Cell processor was not nearly fully utilized.
Although millions were poured into the Cell architecture, the complexity of the SPU hardware contributed in part to the PlayStation 3’s slow launch. Add to that the much higher retail price of the PS3 and the extra year that the Xbox 360 enjoyed prior to its release, and the PS3’s potential was not realized until late in its lifecycle.
Sony was aware of the problems its console was causing developers, but didn’t particularly apologize for it at the time. “We don’t offer an ‘easy to program’ console,” explains CEO Kaz Hirai to Official PlayStation Magazine in 2009. “A lot of people see the downsides of that, but flipping that around means there’s more to the hardware.”
Some developers weren’t shy about criticizing Sony’s architectural choices at the time. Gabe Newell, in conversation with Edge MagazineHe branded it a “waste of everyone’s time”. Kazunori Yamauchi, creator of Gran Turismo, recently said TheGamer that the “PS3 was a nightmare” and that “the hardware was so complex and difficult to design”. A 2007 doctoral thesis by Daniele Paolo Scarpazza, Oreste Villa and Fabrizio Petrini supported this, noting that “software that exploits the potential of the cell requires significantly more development effort than traditional platforms”.
Thirteen years later, the PS3 architecture is still a headache.
There are several unofficial PS3 emulators today. One of these, RPC3, currently has 65% of the PS3 catalog playable. I asked the developers about the problems with the PS3 emulation.
One of RPCS3’s developers, Whatcookie, pointed to the PlayStation 3’s “128-byte read/write and quirky floating-point format that the SPUs support” as the biggest bottleneck in achieving RPCS3’s stated goal of 100% compatibility. The PlayStation 5, like most computers, runs on an x86 CPU. That’s one of the reasons 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 the PS3, meaning it will appear as a single event, while on a system with 64 byte cache lines it will appear as two events,” explained Whatcookie.
Cache in this context is essentially a piece of memory. Dividing the data into chunks — often called rows — makes the size of this storage more manageable. But it means 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 chunks. This incompatibility can cause significant performance issues in addition to the problems already caused by attempting to simulate the console’s cellular structure.
An alternative would be to install SPU furniture on the PlayStation 5 motherboard, which essentially means putting PS3 hardware inside the PS5. It’s a method Sony implemented on the PlayStation 2 and early models of the PS3, both of which incorporated the CPU architecture of their predecessors to allow for backwards compatibility with earlier models. But of course, Sony removed those elements from the PlayStation 3 after originally selling $300 more than the Xbox 360 in its earlier line of consoles. Adding this technology now would not only drive up console prices, but would also leave those who already own a PS5 without access to this functionality.
One RPCS3 Discord user told me that “developing an emulation solution for the SPUs would be ridiculously expensive [for Sony] and makes no financial sense.” Whatcookie also thought that was the case, pointing out that Sony has only been able to emulate the PS1, PS2 and PSP for two generations.
“If they were making a lot of money off these emulators, I think they’d be putting a lot of 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 the one hand, it makes a costly labyrinth of technological problems appear as a quagmire of complications. However, it all boils down to the fact that the whole process is most likely prohibitively expensive, at least in terms of interest and profit for PlayStation. This leaves PlayStation gamers with only a few options: stream PS3 games via PS Now (and eventually PS Plus), or hunt down an old PlayStation 3. In any case, it is more complicated than simply downloading games to current consoles as players will be able to do with PS1, PS2 and even PSP games.
Whatever the case, you might not be getting rid of your PlayStation 3 just yet.
Geoffrey Bunting is a disabled freelance journalist. In addition to IGN, he has written about gaming, entertainment, accessibility and more for Wired, Rock Paper Shotgun, Inverse and others.
https://www.ign.com/articles/ps3-emulation-playstation-plus Why Sony won’t (probably) emulate the PS3