Unless something changes, an issue lurking in older PlayStations’ internal timing systems threatens to eventually make every PS4 game and all downloaded PS3 games unplayable on current hardware. Right now, it’s not a matter of if but when this problem will occur.
This ticking firmware time bomb has been known in certain PlayStation preservation and hacking circles for a while. But it’s gaining new attention amid Sony’s recently announced decision to shut down the online stores for PS3, PSP, and Vita software. While that impending store shutdown won’t impact players’ abilities to play and re-download previously purchased software for now, the eventual wider shutdown of PSN servers for these aging consoles could have a much more drastic effect on the playability of a wide swath of games.
What’s the problem?
The root of the coming issue has to do with the CMOS battery inside every PS3 and PS4, which the systems use to keep track of the current time (even when they’re unplugged). If that battery dies or is removed for any reason, it raises an internal flag in the system’s firmware indicating the clock may be out of sync with reality.
After that flag is raised, the system in question has to check in with PSN the next time it needs to confirm the correct time. On the PS3, this online check happens when you play a game downloaded from the PlayStation Store. On the PS4, this also happens when you try to play retail games installed from a disc. This check has to be performed at least once even if the CMOS battery is replaced with a fresh one, so the system can reconfirm clock consistency.
Why does the PlayStation firmware care so much about having the correct time? On the PS3, the timer check is used to enforce any “time limits” that might have been placed on your digital purchase (as confirmed by the error message: “This content has a time limit. To perform this operation go to settings date and time settings set via internet”). That check seems to be required even for downloads that don’t have any actual set expiration date, adding a de facto one-time online check-in requirement for systems after their internal batteries fail.
On the PS4, though, the timing check is apparently intended to make sure PSN trophy data is registered accurately, and to prevent players from pretending to get trophies earlier than they actually had. You’d think this check could be segregated from the ability to load the non-trophy portions of the game, but player testing has shown that this seems to be a requirement to get PS4 games to load at all.
An eventual issue
None of this is a huge problem for most PlayStation owners right now. Yes, the 10- to 20-year lifespan on your average CMOS battery is slowly running out, especially for the earliest PS3 hardware. But replacing the battery and resyncing the internal timer with PSN is a relatively minor annoyance for the time being (assuming you can find a Wi-Fi hotspot and PSN isn’t suffering one of its rare outages).
But nothing lasts forever, as Sony’s recent decisions regarding older PlayStation online stores shows. At some point in the future, whether it’s in one year or 100 years, Sony will shut off the PSN servers that power the timing check for hardware it no longer considers important. After that, it’s only a matter of time before failing CMOS batteries slowly reduce all PS3 and PS4 hardware to semi-functional curios.
Sony could render the problem moot relatively easily with a firmware update that limits the system functions tied to this timing check. Thus far, though, Sony hasn’t publicly indicated it has any such plans, and hasn’t responded to multiple requests for comment from Ars Technica. Until it does, complicated workarounds that make use of jailbroken firmware are the only option for ensuring that aging PlayStation hardware will remain fully usable well into the future.