Ars ran an interesting article earlier this week about ticking time-bombs in PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 hardware. The simplest explanation for this issue is that these consoles have internal batteries meant to help keep system time. If the battery is pulled and replaced, the system is programmed to phone home to the PlayStation Network to reset the clock. This process depends on Sony retaining support for the ability of these consoles to phone home – Sony could, at their discretion, ‘upgrade’ the service such that discontinued consoles can no longer sign in, which would leave a PS3 or a PS4 with a new clock battery in a state where it needs to find out what time it is but can’t.
(Side note – seems that the lifespan of these batteries is measured in tens of years. That’s quite an improvement over the Sega Saturn battery, which sometimes only lasted a few months!)
It hard sometimes with articles like these to tell where the reality ends and FUD begins because it’s a discussion of potential events that have yet to occur. Yes, the outcomes are tested, so we know how these systems respond when their clock battery is pulled and replaced, but at the same time, we don’t know if/when Sony plans to free these consoles from the requirement to phone home to validate content, or if/when Sony plans to lock them out of PSN forever.
It does raise some interesting questions about what would potentially change in some kind of firmware update. Would the system just get its time from pool.ntp.org? Or would time not matter at all anymore? When the time comes to end PSN access for PS4 hardware, do you force-feed the firmware update so users aren’t locked out, or do you just post the .PUP file to your website and tell people to sneakernet it onto their hardware when they’re good and ready? That would certainly solve the case where a PS4 gets retired from service after someone gets a PS5, then it sits in a closet for 7-8 years until somebody decides to pull it back down and give it to a relative or something, and Sony has long since retired any PlayStation Network endpoints that know how to talk to a console from the 2010s.
(Point of emphasis on that last sentence… the argument will invariably be “well leaving the server there shouldn’t cost you anything, so there’s no reason not to do it”. That’s a fair point, but I can also say from personal experience that it doesn’t take long for the knowledge of how to operate/maintain that server to evaporate as employees move on, company R&D and support dollars get prioritized elsewhere, and document libraries get upended by corporate-issued edicts for IT to lower costs and migrate everything to a cheaper solution. That’s to say nothing of the ongoing expenses that will need to be incurred in keeping security issues patched, and occasionally upgrading the entire operating system. Eventually, it becomes more trouble than it’s worth.)
Or – in the worst case scenario, which Ars was getting to – does Sony do nothing, and essentially leave 200 million consoles out in the cold when the decision is made to lock them out of the online service? It was just a few years ago that Sony got ahead of Microsoft in the eighth generation of consoles simply by staying quiet while Microsoft got hit over the head for their inability to explain whether the Xbox One would be required to be online or not.
For PS3, the damage seems limited to just downloaded content. If the system doesn’t know what time it is, it doesn’t know whether the content is valid to be played or not. This is one of the reasons why I tend to stay away from digital content in the first place. You never know when you’re going to want to play something like I am Setsuna on the Switch, for example. But, if you wanted to do that in 2031 and Nintendo’s long since binned their online storefront for the Switch (as they have for the Wii and Wii U), how/where do you get a copy? From Japan, where physical copies of the game with the English localization built in were published.
For the PS4, the consequences seem most dire – apparently this online check happens when you load any game at all, physical or digital. So if you replace the clock battery, and the PS4 can’t call home to find out what time it is, it’ll never be able to play any games again. That’s quite the end state for a game console.
As alarmist as that sounds, papering over the issue with a simple “well, the PS5 is backwards compatible” ignores the possibility that one day it might not be. Folks should remember that PS3 once had hardware-based backwards compatibility with PS2 which was then replaced with software in a cost-cutting measure, but then Sony decided later on to patch that functionality out of the platform. (Along with OtherOS functionality, which earned them a class action lawsuit, but that’s a different topic for another day…) So, even though Sony’s design decisions for the hardware of the PS5 lend themselves well to easy support for last-gen games, it’s easy to see a future where that functionality has been rolled back.
On that note, the jailbreak community for Sony’s older consoles seems pretty well-established at this point. I actually got a 60GB fat PS3 (the one with the hardware-level compatibility with PS2 games) a few years ago and jailbroke it. So now it never needs to go online, and if I want to play games on it, rather than introduce additional wear and tear on the Blu-Ray drive, I can just point the system at an .iso file on disk. It’s actually rare that I do this these days – the last game I played was Digital Devil Saga, which was about a year ago. Between wanting to focus on newer games and being busy with work, the PSX/PS2/PS3 backlog has intentionally been kept small. But as I said above, sometimes you want to go back and play these games.
Same goes for the PSP and PS Vita, which have similarly lost support from Sony. In fact, a jailbroken PS Vita is probably the best way to play PSP games on native or native-like hardware now, due to the dwindling supply of reliable PSP batteries. A few years back I had a workflow involving both jailbroken handhelds where I could rip an .iso file off of a UMD and then sneakernet it over to the PS Vita to run inside the PSP emulator. Works great, and provides easier access to games that are on dead consoles and dead media formats. While the UMD has thankfully run its course already, some games, like Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, have never been rereleased on any other format.
(Speaking of pointing systems at .iso files, I do plan to eventually build out some kind of a file server and rip as many of the disk-based games as I can, probably as part of a larger project to build out a Plex server. Got a lot to get done before I get there, though.)