Sony's much-rumored PlayStation Plus revamp was finally announced this week. While it offers a large library of retro games to those who are willing to fork over $120 a year, there's one thing it can't do: emulate PS3 games.
The service does give you the option of streaming stone-cold classics like the OG Demon's Souls and Resistance: Fall of Man to your PS5, but it does make you wonder why today's number-crunchingest consoles can't handle the boxes of yesteryear.
A TROUBLED LEGACY
There are a number of correct answers to this question, all of which vary by your perspective. One is that Sony absolutely could develop an emulator that could play PS3 games to a decent standard on a PS5, but they have no financial incentive. Another is that the streaming solution is an acceptable compromise for many consumers that want to revisit the classics of yesteryear. But the real bottom line is this: the PS3 is just a weird console.
At launch, the PS3 quickly became infamous for a few basic reasons: it cost a then-unthinkable $600, its online features paled in comparison to the Xbox 360, and its early lineup of games failed to impress (Sorry, Heavenly Sword.) While the PS3's fortunes never quite recovered from the early doldrums — especially disappointing compared to the massive success of its predecessor, the PS2 — it does have quite a large catalog of impressive games that aren't easily playable on other platforms, such as the aforementioned Resistance series.
Among game developers, however, the PS3 garnered a bad reputation for other reasons: it was very difficult to make games for. If you follow the industry closely, you might've heard tell of the system's much-vaunted Cell architecture, which was hyped as the future of gaming by magazines and the like. While the Cell system was indeed very powerful for the time, computer hardware ended up following a different path, which means that its unusual setup is somewhat of a dead-end today.
Hard to master
The basic structure of the Cell is as follows: in addition to its 3.2GHz core CPU known as the PPE, the PS3 also has eight co-processors called SPEs. The technical design of the console relies on these SPEs taking on the processing of background tasks, such as audio, physics, and AI. Theoretically, when all six of the PS3's SPEs are running in concert — one is disabled, and another is dedicated to the console's operating system — its processing power is comparable to some modern desktop PCs, despite the fact that the system came out over 15 years ago. That's a lot of horsepower for 2006.
However, the process of offloading these processes to the SPEs was messy and difficult to manage. According to developer Rob Wyatt, writing optimized code for the SPEs was like trying to write two programs at once: one to manage the data and one to do the math. Simply writing data from the SPEs to main memory was a multi-step process that confused programmers that were used to a more traditional development environment.
Gran Turismo series producer Kazunori Yamauchi went so far as to call the PS3 era "a nightmare..."
The complexity of the SPEs meant that studios needed specialized teams of programmers to write the idiosyncratic code needed to make the co-processors sing. Unfortunately, the grim realities of game development meant that first-party Sony games tended to take great advantage of the PS3's massive advantage in processing power, while third-party games (especially those on the popular Unreal Engine, like BioShock) would run better on the Xbox 360.
Some developers went so far as to not take advantage of the SPEs at all, for the sake of budget and dev time. While Sony dumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the Cell project, developers were less than happy with the result. Famed Gran Turismo series producer Kazunori Yamauchi went so far as to call the PS3 era "a nightmare" in an interview with GameSpot, saying that "the balance [for the PS3] as a piece of hardware wasn't very good." If you're interested in more of the hyper-specific technical details, we recommend checking out this video by Modern Vintage Gamer.
So, we've now established the PS3 was a singularly difficult video game console to make games for, but what does that have to do with emulating it? Unfortunately, the same tricky SPE-juggling that made the system a nightmare for developers is even harder to emulate, especially for higher-end games. It took PS3 emulators like RPCS3 years to synchronize the SPE's co-processing with the PPE's number-crunching, and some of the specialized SPE code that Sony's digital wizards came up with still doesn't work properly.
Considering all these details, the fact that you can play most of the PS3's library on a mid-range PC is all the more surprising, and a testament to the skill and determination of the RPCS3 team. From Sony's perspective, though, the logic is pretty clear: while a company with its vast resources could almost certainly set aside the money and time needed to develop an emulator that could run most of the notable titles in the PS3's library in some form or fashion, the return on the investment simply isn't enough to justify it.
As such, for enthusiasts, the PS3 is one of the few consoles out there that is truly worth keeping around, because the emulation on some of its bigger games just isn't there quite yet. But if you don't have a big black box lying around, you can still play more than the vast majority of the console's games on a not-so-great PC. In fact, in some cases it's actually better than original hardware — trust us, playing the original Demon's Souls at 4K/60fps is a big improvement over what the actual PS3 can do, fancy SPEs or not.