I've been thinking about how to best use a license when designing games, since long before I was teaching. Everyone has their theories but no one has an official industry-wide best practice. But when I'm running a class on game design, I feel obligated to say something about it, because it's something that comes up so often in industry.
The first time around, I got through this by mediating a class discussion. (Ha ha, I don't need all the answers, I can just have my students provide them!) We listed a lot of licensed games that were either really good or really terrible, and then looked for common themes. We agreed mostly on two general rules: respect the license (something that a certain dog food company would do well to understand), build a game in the fictional world without trying to recreate the original fiction, and choose a game style and genre that are appropriate to the license. The class then went on to create short pitch documents for a game that used the Care Bears license.
I thought about this again earlier today, when I saw a new Scrabble-branded instant-win game at Subway, and I wish I were teaching class right this moment so that I could lead a discussion on this. It's an interesting case in that it's a game license in reverse: a game itself is a license being used to promote an entirely different product, rather than the other way around. But I assume many of the rules of using a license well still apply. I have to wonder: was this a good use of a license? Okay, it's obviously competing with the Monopoly game from McDonald's. But Monopoly is at least a game about money, so a game where you (theoretically) win money makes sense. And collecting all title deeds of the same color has meaning from within the game, so it makes sense that doing so in an instant-win game is meaningful. I don't see this with Scrabble. In the game I get points, not cash; and I'm not collecting one letter at a time to spell words, either. Neither license has anything to do with fast food. So, I don't really see the use. I have to wonder whether this promotion will have a greater effect on sales of sandwiches, or Scrabble sets.
All that said, it will be a happy day for me if I ever see a big fast-food franchise running a Settlers of Catan scratchoff game.
Feel free to leave other comments on common themes of games that make good use of licensed material.