Your PlayStation 4 Has an Expiration Date

It's a short-term issue with long-term ramifications

Key Takeaways

  • Fans have discovered a strange issue that could eventually "brick" every retail PS4.
  • The issue has to do with how the PS4 verifies players’ trophies.
  • Sony could theoretically fix this with a firmware update, but is it going to?
Two people playing PlayStation games on a TV.

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There's a peculiar design flaw with the PlayStation 4 that could eventually render every unit on the market incapable of playing games at all.

The PS4 has a low-power battery on its motherboard that it uses to keep track of time when the unit is unplugged. If that battery runs down or is removed, the PS4 instead tries to contact Sony's servers to sync its internal clock. If it can't do that, the PS4 won’t play anything, even physical media.

For the average consumer in 2021, this isn't much more than a unique case of buyer-beware. If you pick up a used PS4 and it throws a "30391-6" error when you try to play games, it means the battery's dead. However, in the long term, this issue means all of the 115 million PS4 consoles on the market might become useless.

"The news about issues arising in the future when playing valid copies of games on the PS4 is definitely worrying," said Jonas Rosland, executive director of the game preservation non-profit Hit Save!, to Lifewire via Discord.

"However, that would rely on Sony not providing a fix for over 100 million PS4 consoles sold, leaving their fanbase behind. We sincerely hope that will not happen."

(Un)making History

The problem with the PS4's battery was discovered and tested in late March by a team of media-preservation advocates who work out of the Does It Play? Discord server. They refer to the issue as the "C-Bomb," named after the CMOS (complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor) battery on the PS4's motherboard.

"The issue we dubbed 'C-Bomb' isn't new," said Crow, a pseudonymous archivist and researcher with Does It Play?, to Lifewire via Discord. "It's been known in the homebrew scene for some time. When we were told about it, we recognized the detrimental impact it could have for the future of the games we play today."

Some holding a PlayStation remote while wearing gaming headphones.

BONDART / Getty Images

The same battery issue also applies to the PS3, but only applies to digital content like downloaded games. Does It Play’s current hypothesis is that both systems work like this in order to keep users from unlocking trophies by manipulating a unit’s internal clock.

You can replace a bad CMOS battery on a PS4 with an off-the-shelf CR2032, which is the same kind of battery that's used for watches and cars' key fobs.

The replacement doesn't require soldering, but you will have to disassemble your PS4, which voids its warranty. (That, in turn, brings up some of the same issues that drive the "right to repair" movement.)

This also puts a hard ceiling on the PlayStation 4 as a software platform. When and if Sony ends full network support for the PS4, it would mean every functional PS4 left in the world would only continue to function for as long as their CMOS batteries did.

After that, as Does It Play? points out, those PS4s would end up as roughly 285,000 tons of e-waste, and its library of nearly 3,200 video games could no longer be played at all on their native hardware. The PS5 is backward-compatible with most of the PS4 lineup, but not all of it, so a handful of games could be lost permanently.

What Happens Next

Sony could theoretically fix this with a new firmware update for the PlayStation 4 by disabling trophies on any PS4 that has an issue with its internal clock. Does It Play? has published a form request via Google Drive for interested gamers to send to Sony.

However, that isn't seen as likely, as Sony has shown a disinterest in historic preservation in the past few years. Lifewire reached out to Sony for comment on the issue, but received no response.

"I think everyone can look at the legacy of the PlayStation brand and agree that PlayStation is home to some historically important games and hardware," Crow said.

"We just want Sony to help us preserve that legacy. It might sound corny, but this stuff is important, and we want Sony to recognize that and fix this one little bug that has the potential to destroy all of that."

"We have the chance to learn from the mistakes made in the past when it comes to preserving other media," Crow continued.

"The BBC famously recorded over a lot of the original Doctor Who tapes, and those episodes are now thought lost forever. We can stop similar losses from happening to video games, but we want Sony and all hardware vendors to recognize the importance of preservation."

In the meantime, the biggest takeaway from this for the gamer on the ground is to treat your PS4 kindly. No console lasts forever, but the PS4 was built to self-destruct.

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