868-HACK is a roguelike by Michael Brough. You’ve probably played it, or at least heard of it. It’s the best game of the year and the best roguelike in a long time. It’s also takes a number of risks in its design and is quite innovative in how it approaches the genre. One of these innovations is the idea of Streak Scoring. In brief, your Streak Score is the sum of your last streak of successful game scores. So if you score a 30 on game one, a 40 on game two, and then die on game three, you lock in a Streak Score of 70 to the leaderboard and your Streak Score resets to 0.
Streak Score is a solution to a classic high score problem, which is that in any fairly short game with randomness and permadeath high scores on individual levels will always be achieved through aggressive play and frankly insane use of the reset button. For example, if you want to get an individual high score in 868-HACK, you must reset if you don’t get a good first level, you must go for the most insanely dangerous program on the first level, and you must defeat the enemies. You must do these things because resets on the first level are quick to recover from, which means that anyone who has a high score has a near pefect level 1. Ultimately, it means about 10-15 resets for every one run that you actually get to play.
That kind of high scoring is fine, but it’s most definitely tedious and frustrating in certain ways, and it also means that your run must have near perfect luck to compete with anyone else who’s had near perfect luck. Streak Score is a solution to this problem because resetting is not an option on every level past the first. Good luck or bad luck you must deal with it and play well in order to get a good Streak Score. On top of that, Streak Score adds more and more challenges as you continue to successfully run, making it harder and harder to continue on indefinitely.
Streak Scoring is not the only solution that’s been devised to solve this problem. The individual high score problem has been around forever and many games have attempted solutions. Games like Drop7 keep track of a player’s Average Score. Average Score, is a simple solution that’s worked fairly well, but has the drawback of becoming hard to change once you play many games (and therefore not accurately representing gained skill). It also interacts poorly with high scores, as the high risk strategies needed to give you a high score are likely to give you very low scores on failure and consequently plummet your average score. Despite these complaints, Average Score becomes a strong, simple solution to the high score issue with a few tweaks.
Compared to Average Score, Streak Scoring is a poor solution to the high score problem. The most obvious problem is simply that Streak Scoring is broken, in that it does not get hard enough quickly enough to prevent the player from continuing on a massive streak of wins. This allows for massive, weeks or months-long streaks that are impossible to catch up to and incredibly time consuming to replicate were you to die on them. Nobodyweknow has the current high streak score by nearly double the 2nd place score, and has 47 successful runs (to the 2nd place score’s 17 runs) over the course of weeks and weeks of time. It’s not bad that this exists, what Nobodyweknow is doing in Streak Score is actually amazing. However, it’s out of place in the context of 868-HACK’s general design and gameplay. It’s a long, meditative, unusual process that feels more like VESPER5 (another excellent Brough project) than it does like the high-stakes risk/reward of a roguelike. Not to mention that it’s incredibly unappetizing to new players or anyone who is not currently on a mega-streak.
Maybe if it were changed to kill the player within 10 or so runs I would like Streak Scoring better, but even then it’s hard to say. In general, the system feels odd with the tight mechanics of the game. It fails to leverage the core insights that make the game so great, instead stealing the attention to its own system of elaborate penalties that force the player to play very conservatively in most situations. Of course, Average Score on its own is also not a great solution, and Average Score With Tweaks risks becoming too complicated for players to care.
On a positive note, Spelunky’s Daily Challenge is the closest I’ve seen so far to an excellent solution to the high score problem. It’s clever, simple, and representative of general Spelunky skills. The only problem with the Daily Challenge is that posting a very high score in Spelunky involves a lot of somewhat tedious ghost mining. Also, I’m not good enough to do it, so it’s gotta be flawed somehow.