How to Make your own PICO-8 "Physical" Release

When I came up with the idea for creating my own PICO-8 physical cart release - I always planned to share the process of exactly how I made them. I can think of nothing cooler than seeing a shelf of various "Pico" carts, released by a wide variety of people.

Therefore, if you are at all interested in creating something similar (and I guess it doesn't have to be for PICO-8, it could be any digital game!), then please see below for a step-by-step explanation of my workflow.  

NOTE: I'm sure the process below can be improved upon (I was limited with what I had available), and if you do - it would be great if you could also share your tips for everyone to benefit from.

Supplies

The following are the individual components that I used,
along with the best value (UK-based) sources I found:


Equipment

You will also probably want the following hardware, for making & assembling the carts:


STEP 1: Design your game's cover art

Use whichever graphics application you have access to (Photoshop, Illustrator, Gimp, etc.) to design your game's cover art.

The dimensions I used for my Low Mem Sky cover were as follows:

TIP: I've also attached a PDF template to this article, which may help you as a starting point (depending on which graphic/design program you use).


STEP 2: Design your game's cart label

For the SD card label, I simply used the PICO-8 cart ".p8.png" file, but with a few tweaks.

The first thing is to open the cart .p8.png into a graphics program (like Photoshop, Aseprite or Paint.Net) and add a bit of a "padding" to it. This padding will help later to give is a "bleed" area so that the labels print without any "white" gaps.

Also, due to the way that PICO-8 cleverly "layers" the cart data in the PNG file, you might want to also want to clean up the colours (e.g. main cart bg colour) to make the colours more consistent - personal choice though!

Then you want to resize the image to the approx dimensions listed below.

NOTE: When resizing, ensure to choose "Nearest-Neighbour" method of interpolation (NOT bilinear) - otherwise you will lose your crisp pixels!

Once you've got rid of the cart's black border, and created a padded margin like shown above - we're ready to move on.

 

STEP 3: Print case cover art

You will want to make sure that when you print your cover labels, it maintains the correct size and proportions (as well as ensuring to make the most of your "sticky" paper!).

In my case, I used a free desktop publishing tool, called Scribus, to arrange as many covers onto as single piece of paper as I could fit (while still leaving gaps for cutting!).  
However, you could easily use other apps (Publisher, Word, etc.) to do the same.

Then simply print them onto the full-size sticky, gloss paper.

 

STEP 4: Print label stickers

When it comes to printing the SD card sticky labels - if you bought them from the same place I did, Online Labels actually provide an online label designer called Maestro.

Maestro allows you to easily select the right paper template (EU30052WG), then you just upload and position the cart label images appropriately.

Tip: Make sure to "over-size/bleed" the labels a little bit, so that if the printing is a little misaligned, you still won't leave any "white" on the label. 

Then simply click Print (which will actually create a PDF file) - then print that PDF using Acrobat Reader (for better accuracy - making sure to print using "Actual Size").

TIP: While the prints are drying - you might want to use some masking tape to keep the paper flat, and stop it curling. 


STEP 4: Prepare/Copy SD card contents

While you wait for the paper to dry fully, you can begin working on the contents of your SD card.  I'd recommend copying your contents to your SD cards before you spent time putting sticky labels to them - otherwise you may scuff them!

The contents you include is very much an individual choice, and depends on your game contents.  For the Low Mem Sky release, I decided to include all binary platform exports (Windows, Mac, Linux) for the game - and I also included a selection of my previous games as well (seeing as there was SO much room left on the card!).

To make things quicker, I simply created a "root" folder on my computer to prepare the files/folders that each SD card should contain. Then it was very simple to copy & paste all the files to every card (insert, paste, eject, repeat...)

TIP: You might want to use a file management tool, which can also verify the copied files - such as TeraCopy (Win/Mac).


STEP 5: Cut & trim cover art

One the print-outs have dried, it's time to start cutting & trimming the cover "label".
Pretty straightforward stuff, just make sure to use a decent paper trimmer (like the one suggested above).

TIP: To avoid the spine of your cover creasing when the case is opened/closed - stick a thin (1cm) strip of paper underneath the spine. This will stop the spine from sticking to the case and keep it from bending.

If you decide to use the tip above (to avoid the spine from creasing) - then I recommend peeling back and putting the thin strip in place before you do the final trim.
That way, it all cuts nice and flush.


STEP 6: Stick the cover art to the case

This part can be a bit a bit tricky, but after doing a few, you'll get the "feel" for it.

The best approach I found was to peel half of the cover sticker back (e.g. peel the "front" part, up to and including the spine). Then, while the case is closed, aim to get the spine dead-on and level first.

Once you got the spine positioned, then slowly & carefully press the cover down to ensure it applies cleanly and flat (e.g. to avoid air bubbles). Finally, peel the rest of the sticker backing away and carefully press the rest of the sticker to the case.

 

STEP 7: Peel and stick cart label to SD card

This part is pretty straightforward - just peel off and apply the cart label squarely onto the SD card (tweezers help here!).

NOTE: If you purchased a "branded" SD card, you may want/have to first peel that label off first (this can be quite a pain for the foil stickers!)

 

Finally, push/insert the SD card into the case (it should "snap" into place) and then... voilà! You're all done - admire your work! 😁


I hope you found this article useful. Creating these physical releases took a fair amount of research (and trial & error), but I have to say - I'm very happy with the end result. The fact that many other people seem to like them too (especially my Patrons - for whom they were intended for) was the icing on the cake!

I really do hope that others like this design/form-factor and decide to make their own "Pico" carts too. It would be great to have all our miniature games all lined up on the shelf.

If you do make one in a similar way - please let me know (either here or on Twitter), coz I'd love to see what you make (and will probably wanna get one to add to my collection!) 😁

Thanks as always to my Patrons for their support - this was all for them! 🙏

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