John Springer walks into Fortezza Coffee in downtown Fort Wayne and orders a bottle of water.
He’s wearing a Godzilla t-shirt, carrying a bag of video game memorabilia, and smiling bigger than anyone else in the room.
That’s because Springer has a secret that he can’t wait to share with Fort Wayne. He’s on the cusp of achieving a dream that’s been 11 years in the making.
Year-by-year, project-by-project, he has been quietly recruiting local and international artists and software developers to help him turn Fort Wayne into an authentic, retro-style video game trilogy—the type of pixelated Sega Genesis games, circa 1990, where you fight zombies and killer snowmen in iconic local places, like the downtown Fort Wayne Arts Campus.
“I’m just a big dork with an extraordinary vision,” Springer says. “We want to take video game history, combine it with local history, and make new history.”
Springer stands next to the video game version of himself in i heart pizza's first game, Summit City Showdown.
But that’s not all. Along with making his own video games, Springer’s company, i heart pizza LLC, has acquired property in northeast Fort Wayne for a second project in late-2020: Opening “The World’s Greatest 16-bit Pizzeria” where guests can play his games in groups.
Springer envisions the space as being decorated to look like a house from the 1990s with video game history and memorabilia on display. Along with a pizza menu, he plans to offer guests a menu with thousands of retro video games he has collected over the years.
The idea is to help bring gaming culture back to its communal roots in Fort Wayne.
“At this point, gaming is huge, but it’s really fractured,” Springer says. “People game online and miss the in-person interaction. We want to bring back that culture of people coming together and hanging out to play video games at someone’s house.”
Summit City Showdown characters fight in front of Fort Wayne's historic Embassy Theatre.
For Springer, the mission is personal, too. As a kid growing up in northeast Fort Wayne, he never dreamed that he would be doing something cool for the city someday.
He recalls his third-grade birthday party, where he invited three friends to attend, and none of them showed up. It was that same birthday that he received his first Sega Master System, and a world of possibilities opened up for him.
“It’s not like I had a horrible childhood, but I had a lot of alone time,” Springer reflects. “I understood what it meant to have vision, and I had such imagination.”
i heart pizza's first Fort Wayne game, Summit City Showdown, features a replica of Fort Wayne's iconic downtown baseball stadium.
While he has enjoyed seeing downtown Fort Wayne come back to life in recent years, he’s also felt a little out of place at its hip coffee shops and upscale eateries.
He hopes that his project will tell others who feel the same way: There’s a place for you in Fort Wayne’s future, too.
“I understand intrinsically the need to feel accepted and to belong,” Springer says. “What I really want to resonate with everyone is, ‘Hey, you can have fun, and you’re cool enough to be here.”
As far as Springer knows, his video game project is the first of its type worldwide.
He started making his first Fort Wayne-themed game in 2010 and finished it 2012. Since then, it's sat on his shelf, unreleased until the trilogy is complete.
But the Summit City isn't the only place to be turned into a retro video game, he notes. A man in Regina, Saskatchewan, came up with a similar concept and unveiled his game this spring.
Freimann Square park in downtown Fort Wayne.
Ironically, Springer lived in Saskatchewan, Canada, for a time, too. It was when he moved back to the Summit City with his wife that he decided to do something to “give back” to his hometown.
“The day we filed our paperwork at the U.S. Consulate to move back to Fort Wayne, I woke up, and I had a grapefruit sized bulge in my armpit,” Springer reflects.
It turns out, he had stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“It’s like a bad dream now,” he says. “I came face-to-face with my mortality at age 30. All I did during my chemo and radiation treatments was start working on this.”
A video game version of the Old Fort at 1201 Spy Run Ave.
Originally, he thought he was going to make a retro video game store in Fort Wayne, where people could buy games from the ‘80s and ‘90s. But that wasn’t enough.
“I really wanted to do something imaginative and meaningful for the community that people could rally behind,” he says.
It was his mother who suggested that he make his own video game as a tribute to the city, but he brushed off the idea at first.
“I don’t have that skill set,” Springer explains. “I have never written a line of code, drawn a single pixel, or composed a piece of video game music. But the idea stuck with me, and low-and-behold, somehow, someway, we fumbled our way through it and did it.”
A sculpture outside the Fort Wayne Museum of Art in i heart pizza's video games.
Working as a project manager, Springer coordinated with a team of artists, musicians, and software developers in Fort Wayne—as well as five continents around the world—to produce his video games. To this day, i heart pizza owns 24 games, and has made about half of them from scratch.
“We make brand-new Sega Genesis games for 30-year-old hardware,” Springer explains. “Since the hardware is obsolete, you would think that nobody cares, but there’s a niche market for it. Now, we want to take that niche market and open it up to make it something accessible and very cool for our community. We use video games to tell stories.”
In i heart pizza’s first Fort Wayne video game called Summit City Showdown, Springer and his wife star as the two main characters, taking on the “bad guys” who invade 2010-era downtown Fort Wayne.
Springer's wife, Alia, next to her video game character.
The success of this game opened up more doors for Springer’s company, helping him acquire the intellectual property to 10 Taiwanese video games that were created for Sega gaming systems in the ‘90s. Most of these games never made it to market, and the ones that did were released with little or no fanfare, he explains. Now, i heart pizza wants to change their fate.
“We’ve taken these games and characters that never got a fair shake, that are totally obscure, and we’ve localized them and put them into our Fort Wayne-themed games,” Springer says. “We've managed to build our own universe of 500-plus unique characters, 24 games and counting, and we did it because we adamantly believe that Fort Wayne needs us.”
As Springer’s company completes its third Fort Wayne-themed game, he’s hoping to add an extra-special twist to his concept. He wants to invite local businesses to be part of the game, free-of-cost, and to use the game as a marketing strategy to promote local commerce.
For instance, when players visit a shop in the game, they could earn real rewards, like coupons or vouchers, to redeem at that same shop in-person, Springer explains.
Characters that never got a fair shake in the '90s are brought back to life in Springer's games.
He pitched the concept at a Fort Wayne SOUP event in May 2019. While he didn’t win the prize money, he says he received positive feedback from attendees and the event’s organizers.
“This is not just a video game,” Springer said at SOUP. “This is a groundbreaking, innovative marketing campaign to promote our city and every single business in it, locally and beyond.”
Neighborhoods like East State Village are featured in i heart pizza's video games.
More than anything, he hopes his idea will resonate with other local gamers and non-gamers alike who simply want to experience the city in a new way.
“There’s a lot of arcades; there’s a lot of bars with arcades, but there’s no other community in the world that has something like this concept,” he says. “This is truly a unique thing, and I’m so proud of that because it’s here in Fort Wayne.”
Springer is seeking legal advice to complete his third video game featuring local businesses. Attorneys interested in donating services may contact him at [email protected]
Local businesses and individuals interested in learning more about his project can follow @iheartpizzallc on social media.